artificial intelligence ⇔ science fiction

A sketchpad for developing critical educational materials about AI and digital citizenship

Legacy of power

 African Undersea Cables (v.51, July 2020) map by Steve Song (cc-attrib-4.0)

Off the coast of West Africa a cable travels in from the deep ocean to arrive on the beaches of Ghana and Nigeria. But this cable doesn’t connect to the rest of Africa, or to the US or Europe. Rather, it runs direct to the UK, the former colonial power. Likewise, the best connections in Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania and Senegal all travel back to France. While there are more than 20 cables linking the US and Europe, the first direct connection from Africa across the Atlantic only opened in 2018. That’s a legacy of European Imperial power that lives on in today’s digital infrastructure.
– James Bridle, New Ways of Seeing: Invisible Networks. First broadcast 17 April 2019 on BBC Radio 4.

There’s further discussion of the material substrate of the Internet in pp. 11–14 of this paper (preprint) by Manu Luksch & Mukul Patel, with Manu Luksch, forthcoming in A. Chapman & N. Hume, eds. Coding and Representation from the Nineteenth Century to the Present: Scrambled Messages (Routledge, 2020).



Render it visible

A prerequisite for understanding the problem of disinformation is an understanding of the infrastructure over which it is disseminated.

You can ask just about anyone how the postcard that you sent them arrived in their mailbox and they would be able to give you a relatively coherent description […] They would be able to describe things for instance like postcodes […] but if you ask the same person how the email that you sent them arrived in their inbox, they would be reaching for magic realism at best […]
People will – children especially will know more as to how a flower works or how the Solar System is actually laid out than they do an infrastrcutrure that they depend upon – and that is something that those that provide us that infrastructure would prefer. There is a tremendous economic and political advantage to infrastructural ingnorance.
Julian Oliver interviewed by James Bridle for New Ways of Seeing: Invisible Networks. First broadcast 17 April 2019, BBC Radio 4.



Artificial flowers in a synthetic garden

It might for instance be said that no machine could write good English or that it could not be influenced by sex-appeal or smoke a pipe. I cannot offer any such comfort, for I believe that no such bounds can be set. But I certainly hope and believe that no great efforts will be put into making machines with the most distinctively human, but non-intellectual characteristics such as the shape of the human body; it appears to me to be quite futile to make such attempts and their results could have something like the unpleasant quality of artificial flowers.

From ‘Can digital computers think?’, a talk by Alan Turing broadcast on BBC Radio in 1951. The entire manuscript is at the Turing Archive, here.

What qualities would Turing have discerned in the vast synthetic gardens that are algorithmically managed societies?



How you can learn to live with organisms

Merlin Sheldrake’s scintillating survey of the world of fungi – particularly recommended for its description of lichen life – touches upon computation and intelligence in its references to network design by slime mold and fungal computing. Those concerned with ethical issues in AI will find much else of pertinence, including discussions of the concept of (biological) individuation, and of the effects of  language on habitual thinking:

Today, the study of shared mycorrhizal networks is one of the fields most commonly beset with political baggage. Some portray these systems as a form of socialism by which the wealth of the forest can be redistributed. Others take inspiration from mammalian family structures and parental care, with young trees nourished by their fungal connections to older and larger ‘mother trees’. Some describe networks in terms of ‘biological markets’, in which plants and fungi are portrayed as rational economic individuals standing on the floor of an ecological stock exchange, engaging in ‘sanctions’, ‘strategic trading investments’ and ‘market gains’.
The Wood Wide Web is a no less anthropomorphic term. Not only are humans the only organisms to build machines, but the internet and World Wide Web are some of the most overtly politicised technologies that exist today. Using machine metaphors to understand other organisms can be as problematic as borrowing concepts from human social lives, […] if we understand organisms to be machines, we’ll be more likely to treat them as such.



Smart Bench

Off-grid, emission free (in the relevant sense) and fostering communication – is this the ultimate smart bench? In a BBC radio programme Reimaging the City (2016), Colm Tóibín describes how the (relatively recently migrated) Pakistani community makes use of seats along the Rambla del Raval in Barcelona. If a person finds themselves lonely or in distress, all they have to do is to is to sit on one of the benches, and soon enough another remember of the community will turn up and sit down to talk with them. Smart – without as much a single USB charging point.



How you can learn to live with computers

Being a computer engineer is neither illegal not immoral. It isn’t even something to be ashamed of, I guess, but there was a time in my life when I was reluctant to admit that I was one. The confession created all sorts of problems. Consider, for example, the simple, friendly ritual of meeting people at a cocktail party. A standard part of the ceremonial is to be asked, ‘And what do you do?’ The simple response, ‘I design digital computers’, usually turned out to have a dramatically chilling effect.

After a promising start to the Prologue, things go very askew. This was published in 1977, so there is absolutely no excuse for what follows:
In fact, some of my best friends are computer engineers, and I wouldn’t really mind if my daughter married one.

The rest of the book continues a melange of sometimes pithy but often quaint observations, technical explanation, gripes at colleagues, reactionary comments about gender… but sprinkled amongst these are some astute reckonings, some of which temper the sexism elsewhere. There is a general distrust of utilitarianism – or rather, the arithmetic of the good. In the chapter An Emotional Appeal, the author makes an argument for replacing human names with numbers that trades on the promise to end discrimination by ethnicity or gender, the ability to finely specify one’s marital status (‘0 could mean single and happy that way, 2 could mean married but looking, and so on up to 9, meaning none of your business.’) and to establish family relationhips by choice rather than circumstance, etc. But the logic doesn’t move him –  he simply prefers that people have names rather than numbers. Here’s the end of the last chapter, Looking Ahead:

The danger is that we will come to see [the computer], not as a model of the way that people do think, which it isn’t, but as a model of the way that people should think, which it must never become. The hazard is not that we have made it in our image but that we may try to remake ourselves in its image. 
With the power to give us practically unlimited logical capability, the computer is a machine of the greatest significance. Don’t ever understimate it. But human intelligence goes beyond logic and it is the other components of thinking that separate people from computers. Use them or lose them.