Its 2.30am in San Diego and I am enjoying the vicissitudes of jetlag after having come halfway around the world to the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference. Yesterday I gave a keynote paper at the Religion and Media workshop on techno-optimism on ‘Sophia the Hanson Robot, the Singularity, and AI Teleology’. Last night, before I went to bed, I got into a discussion of gender and sexism in the Mandalorian on Twitter. One of these two moments of thinking in public was perhaps more coherent than the other (perhaps… jetlag is the worst!). In both, however, the subject of the control of fiction was key.
In my discussion of both a teleological view of the exponential increase in intelligence in history and in the development of AI and the production of ‘faux-bots’, I drew attention to the factors enforcing our view that there are agential AI. The first is our perception of minds in places where there are not currently minds (I’m going to stick with being agnostic as to whether this will ever be possible), the second is the non-fiction, ‘real world’ representation of agential AI (in the media and in popular cases like Sophia), and the third is fictional agential AI, as in science fiction. All three dialectically influence each other, but fiction and non-fiction appear to have a very porous boundary (and the locating of narratives within one or the other can also be an ideological act.
To illustrate this I used the example of Orson Welle’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast where even if there weren’t quite the hysterical crowds that the press made out at the time, there were still some for whom the boundary between fiction and non-fiction became blurred. Welles, I think leant into this kind of fuzziness in his career and in this production and desired this kind of ‘Wellesian slippage’ between fiction and non-fiction. More recent examples of this slippage with ‘faux-bots’ include Adam:
Adam was created as a part of an award-winning web series, but this short demonstration released online was denuded of its context. We then had people such as Derren Brown (who perhaps should know better, being himself very skilled in the deployment of Wellesian Slippage!) tweeting out the video with comments about how we are all going to die.
Perhaps he was joking, but again, for some people who responded to his apparent panic with their own, there was a slip from fiction to non-fiction.
In the case of Sophia the Hanson Robot, there seems to be both Wellesian Slippage and something I term Manifested Aspiration. In discussions of Sophia and her purpose, David Hanson has referred to her as a form of character art, or as being like an NPC in a computer game – given the illusion of agency for story reasons. The story is, however, that same teleological accelerationist view of AI that sees it as leading us on to the Singularity. He has also referred to her as ‘coming alive’, and her ‘aliveness’ is certainly something humans respond to with enthusiasm in some cases and anxiety and fear in others.
David Hanson has called her a research and development platform too, a scientific step along the way to that aliveness and/or the technological Singularity. I suggest, however, that the fictional elements of Sophia are under entirely under the control of Sophia’s creators and promoters. She is a use of a new medium in the same way that radio enabled Welles to broadcast his version of the War of the Worlds.
Unlike the 1938 War of the Worlds, however, Sophia is a physical manifestation of hope for a future state (I assume here, but it does seem unlikely that Welles thought his broadcast was a preview of what was actually to come!).
In my paper I drew a historical parallel between Sophia and the manifested aspirations of spiritualists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who used the technology of the time (often photography, but also puppetry) to create the very thing that they believed to be real: ghosts, spirits, and in some cases fairies, who also fit into their cosmology of the afterlife and the universe. A more cynical reading would suggest pure disingenuousness and the pursuit of fame and wealth. But I think it is important, as scholars such as Anne Braude does, to read Spiritualism in the light of the utopian, and socially progressive, messages that some mediums brought from beyond the veil and how Spiritualism could give a voice to the (mainly female) voiceless. Likewise, we should perhaps read faux-bots like Sophia in the light of the utopian aims of those behind her, seeing her as a manifestation of their aspiration for something that they want to exist in the world so very badly.
Of course, in Sophia’s case, the voice that is being given space is that of her writer, and not the voice of women being ignored by society, and that is concerning. The pushback against Sophia has included criticism of her being given citizenship of Saudi Arabia when women there do not share all the same rights as men. Sophia’s performance of gender and the ways in which she is promoted (appearing on the cover of a style magazine after a makeover, being asked for a date by Will Smith, talking about how she wants babies) are very heteronormative. But it needs to be reiterated: this is entirely under the control of her creators. Sophia has not ‘come alive’, she has not been born but created. Her nature, her gender, her desires, her purposes are all decided by someone else.
The conversation about the Disney+ Mandalorian TV series began when I responded to a defence of the lack of female roles in the television series where it was suggested that this might be the result of the harsh world in which it is set. I said: “This is a generous Watsonian reading but maybe I’m more of a cynical Doylist because I think even the dystopic world would be a result of authorial decisions, including the one that would say a rough world equals a male world.” (Watsonian readings make arguments based on the internal logic of the world of the fiction and Doylist readings make arguments based on the logic of the author. Watson is a fictional character in the world of Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, who connects with my above paper in being a vocal Spiritualist taken in by faux-fairies in the 1920s).
The response was that women are usually disproportionately endangered in lawless and violent environments, but this is still a Doylist reason, based upon the logic of Earth, not the potential logic of a fantasy realm. If you can control the fiction enough to produce droids, jet pack-wearing bounty hunters, and the magical powers of the Force, you can control it enough to write women living outside of the patriarchy. This is a common enough critique in the fantasy genre, with new writers being encouraged not to write sexist cultures because that was how it was in ‘medieval times’. A lot of the online defence of Game of Thrones’ sexual violence was on the basis of this kind of ‘historical accuracy’. The control of fiction by its creators suggests it can be otherwise, and there are brilliant novels where patriarchal societies are seen as optional in the story as dragons are.
Such stories do not, however, restrict commentary on gender relations in our world, they actually open up new possible configurations that critique earthly relations. The first part of the workshop I gave my paper in yesterday was a discussion of a book chapter on Octavia Butler’s Parables books from a disabilities studies perspective. The chapter argued that her creation of a fictional or ‘non-real’ disability (in the words of the author of the chapter, Sami Schalk) actually opened up the possibility of a critique of our assumptions about disability. Moreover, science fiction worlds without disability (commonly because science has ‘cured’ them in the story) are also a way into a critique of our narratives, social prejudices, and assumptions (although, Schalk also argues that it would be better if the authors always intentionally wrote such worlds as critique rather than as aspirations, as was often the case for ‘golden age’ sci-fi authors).
In the Mandalorian there may be a Watsonian reason for the lack of female characters. Perhaps it will be revealed at some point. Or perhaps not.
In which case the reason there are few women is Doylist, the author intended (even unconsciously) that it be a world where women are not seen. This needs to be owned. Fiction is controlled. The worlds we create can be otherwise. There can be droids, there can not be droids. There can be faux-bots, there can not be faux-bots. Why and how we create our stories is important.
I ended my paper with a quote from Donna Haraway, which focuses on non-fictional machines, but could be said of the fictional too:
“The Machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our process, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.”