Panel 1B | AI, Biotechnology, and (Post)Human Anxieties

Posthuman Predictions: Artificial Intelligence in HBO’s Westworld
Jana Fedtke and Aisha Al-Ali (American University of Sharjah)

This presentation explores the representations of artificial intelligence in HBO’s Westworld season 3 (2020), set in a dystopian Los Angeles in 2058 after some of the artificially intelligent hosts have escaped the theme park. We are particularly interested in the representations of Rehoboam–the predictive AI reminiscent of contemporary for-profit data collection and analysis of human behavior for private corporations–which its creator Engerraund Serac compares to a seemingly omniscient God that can “create order out of chaos” (Episode 5). Westworld presents a dystopian future where free will seems obsolete, but chaos ensues. The host Dolores decides to release everyone’s data to let people know about their predicted future, which can potentially start a revolution (Episode 5). Drawing on chaos theory, we argue that Westworld attempts to deconstruct such a dystopian future by introducing outliers that have the potential to disrupt the predictions. Serac diagnoses its “problem”: “In every projection … there were people, outliers, agitators, whom you couldn’t predict or control” (Episode 5). We argue that the texts present the outliers as what Deleuze and Guattari have called “bodies without organs”: their capacities are not predictable and they ultimately cause the failure of AIs. The presentation will examine how fiction constructs popular images of artificial intelligence and shapes people’s understanding of the possibilities that AI offers. We contextualize Westworld within the concept of the posthuman (Braidotti, 2013, 2018, 2019) and presenting AI as a superintelligence (Bostrom, 2014), which reduces the concept of artificial intelligence to the singularity–the moment when AI will take over from humans in what Lovelock (2019) calls the “novacene.” In the contemporary social imaginary, this term identifies the age in which automation, algorithms, and predictive models have become the norm, assigning predominantly negative connotations to AI.

Beyond the Frankenstein Complex? Pop Culture Representations of Artificial Intelligence in the Digital Age
Katalina Kopka (University of Bremen)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is among the most hotly debated fields of STEM research in the twenty-first century, which is why fictional narratives about AI are ubiquitous in popular culture. TV shows such as Westworld and Black Mirror are consumed as ravenously as blockbusters like Ex Machina (2014) or Blade Runner 2049 (2017). As a cultural arena in which opinions are negotiated, pop culture strongly influences public perceptions of AI. How Artificial Intelligence is represented on-screen is therefore highly relevant. Canonical sci-fi stories of the twentieth century often adhered to the narrative pattern of the “Frankenstein complex” (Asimov 1991). These tales of killer robots vying for world domination betrayed deep-seated fears of scientific irresponsibility and technology out of control. By the turn of the millennium, however, the growing presence of real-life AI began to inspire stories that portray the impact of intimate human-machine relationships on the social fabric. My presentation examines challenges and benefits of this representational shift. More specifically, I explore a central contradiction: while many contemporary narratives offer a more realistic look at the social impact of intelligent machines, they also maintain a strong anthropocentric bias that distorts the realities of present-day AI research. Instead of addressing coded bias, Big Tech’s erosion of democratic structures, or increasing inequality, these on-screen depictions mostly focus on superintelligent androids and machine consciousness. They ignore pertinent challenges that designers and policymakers need to tackle today, yet create a one-sided portrayal of AI that may induce irrational fears of far- distant problems and increase already existing tech anxiety. Ultimately, this contribution investigates whether AI narratives can ever escape the Frankenstein complex. I argue that the enormous representational power of pop culture is ambivalent in the context of STEM research: it has the potential to popularize AI as a discipline, but also to skew public discourses.

“How’s life on the farm?”: Biotechnology and Monstrosity in Contemporary Art
Kimiko Matsumura (University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point)

In The Farm, American painter Alexis Rockman questions the future of genetic engineering by imagining its impacts on our food supply. His visual hypothesis is grotesque: a squared cow with extra teats for increased milk production, an especially fat pig with cultivated organs for human harvest, and a naked rooster with two additional wings for ease of consumption. Joining the pig on our side of the fence are square watermelons, triangular tomatoes, and a mouse with an ear growing out of its back, fellow casualties of the human desire to maximize agricultural productivity. Rockman’s cautionary tale is effective because of his attention to scientific detail: he consulted a molecular biologist for the project and couches his ideas in real histories of selective breeding. But while his terrifying conclusion is rooted in fact, the painting remains a piece of fiction. Using art historical methods of visual analysis and social history, this paper performs a close reading of Rockman’s painting to explore how contemporary artists are using science fiction to make political claims. Commissioned by the cultural group Creative Time and exhibited on a billboard in Manhattan in 2000, Rockman’s image was a highly visible and publicly accessible warning against biotechnological modification. I argue that Rockman’s didactic approach spoke to the general public’s anxieties regarding scientific advancement at the turn of the century, and it points up the important role of emotion in public perceptions of science. Using impactful visual imagery, Rockman’s work demonstrates lingering fears of and distrust for scientific innovation, and it provides insight into continued public resistance to scientific developments in the present.

Stanzas from the Singularity: Towards Machine Learning’s Posthuman Poetics
Kat Fox (University of California, Los Angeles)

The nascent generation of artificially-penned poetry takes the idea of automatic writing as compositional strategy to the zenith of the literal: posthuman poetics as an emerging field seeks to consider machine-learning lyricism as an autonomous poetic presence by analyzing the merits and literally-coded conventions of the poem as object in itself and automaton as artist. New technocompositional autonomy re-energizes and refreshes critical questions of where authorship is located in analysis of the curatorial collaboration of managing AI output and refits a role for the human as mechanical muse and posthuman patron. OpenAI’s GPT-3 and its contemporaries generate poetic forms both capable of emulation and uniquely stochastic deconstruction of language and composition, offering the potential for a posthuman, postmodernist school that seeks to express a lineage of the canon transformed, unsettle human authority, and promote a radical autonomy of the word. Engaging GPT-3’s public oeuvre in an effort to redefine the boundaries of the poet in an increasingly simulated world challenges the emotionally-reactionary impulses against artificial authors as just another violating spectre of the impending-already future; the skittish reception of artificial authors in the humanities isn’t altogether unlike the rejection of now-celebrated forms of poetic eccentricity, and it’s critical to reexamine whether or not we should stop worrying and love the bot.