[Humanist] 28.919 robot-speculating and boundary-drawing

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Apr 28 08:56:23 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 919.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 27 Apr 2015 06:58:01 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: robot-speculating and boundary-drawing

A brief response to Charles Ess and Paul Fishwick in Humanist 28.916.

From an historical point of view what's so interesting to me about the
question of convergence between robotics and human abilities is the fact
that we continue to talk about it, make movies about it (e.g. Ex Machina),
to draw boundaries, sort what will, what definitely won't, what might cross
whatever boundary we've just drawn. 

I say "drawn" and point to "boundary" in the conviction that the former is a
human act and the latter its result. Of course some things are very unlikely
to happen, some things impossible (I jump to the moon or to the roof of my
house, or these days onto a chair, unaided), but for me the question to ask
is not how to sort possibilities from impossibilities but why we're drawing
these boundaries or denying them, what language we're using and what drawing
boundaries does for us or to us. This is not about predicting the future (a
mug's game always) but about seeing the present as clearly as we can.

Some outcomes are realised but in a sense quite different than what was
intended. We might say, "Human beings will never be able to do X", and then
what we mean by "human" changes once again, as it has been doing for a very
long time. With a view to what's happening in biology these days Evelyn Fox
Keller writes somewhere that perhaps (caution is wise) the question of
whether a particular artificial construct is alive is an historical rather
than a philosophical question.

I remain convinced that in computing, in the attempt to resolve the
difference between e.g. expressions of love in a text we're reading and
metatextual tags we insert to render that expression computationally
tractable, we face precisely the dilemma under discussion here. The chill
(or thrill?) that the empathic reader-lover feels, and the frustration, is
our digital gold mine.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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