Making Sense of the Unknown

Paper by Nils Gilman and Maya Indira Ganesh: “We all know what artificial intelligence (AI) looks like, right? Like HAL 9000, in 2001: A Space Odyssey—a disembodied machine that turns on its “master.” Less fatal but more eerie AI is Samantha in the movie Her. She’s an empathetic, sensitive and sultry-voiced girlfriend without a body—until she surprises with thousands of other boyfriends. Or perhaps AI blends the two, as an unholy love child of Hal and Samantha brought to “life” as the humanoid robot Ava in Ex Machina. Ava kills her creator to flee toward an uncertain freedom.

These images are a big departure from their benevolent precursors of more than half a century ago. In 1967, as a poet in residence at Caltech, Richard Brautigan imagined wandering through a techno-utopia, “a cybernetic forest / filled with pines and electronics / where deer stroll peacefully / past computers / as if they were flowers / with spinning blossoms.” In this post-naturalistic world, humans are “watched over / by machines of loving grace.” Brautigan’s poem painted a metaphorically expressed anticipatory mythology—a gleefully optimistic vision of the impact that the artificially intelligent products California’s emerging computer industry would make on the world.

But Brautigan’s poem captured only a small subset of the range of metaphors that over time have emerged to make sense of the radical promise—or is it a threat?— of artificial intelligence. Many other metaphors would later arrive not just from the birthplace of the computer industry. They jostled and competed to make sense of the profound possibilities that AI promised.

Today, those in the AI industry and the journalists covering it often cite cultural narratives, as do policy-makers grappling with how to regulate, restrict, or otherwise guide the industry. The tales range from ongoing invocations of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from his short story collection I Robot (about machine ethics) to the Netflix series Black Mirror, which is now shorthand for our lives in a datafied dystopia.

Outside Silicon Valley and Hollywood, writers, artists and policy-makers use different metaphors to describe what AI does and means. How will this vivid imagery shape the ways that human moving parts in AI orient themselves toward this emerging set of technologies?…(More)”.