October 5 – Machine?

//October 5 – Machine?
October 5 – Machine? 2018-01-07T15:01:49-04:00


Asimov, Isaac. 2004 (1950). “Runaround” and “Reason” in I, Robot. New York: Bantam Dell.

Fritz Lang. (1927). Metropolis. New York, NY: Kino International. (Available online)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Joss Whedon (Director). USA: Marvel Studios (available in Bobst and on iTunes and Amazon)

Theory and Commentary

Battaglia, Debbora. 2001. Multiplicities: An Anthropologist’s Thoughts on Replicants and Clones in Popular Film. Critical Inquiry 27(3): 493-514.

Gray, C. H., ed. 1995. Part 4: In the Imagination. In The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge.


Essay 2 Due


  1. Matthew Dischner October 5, 2016 at 7:02 pm - Reply

    Ok, Here we go

    1) I love Asimov. I’ve read 1/2 of two books by him, thats it, and I love him. His ideas about robotics were groundbreaking and have stuck around throughout the years. In Terminator 2, the T-800 does not break the three laws of robotics, for instance. And the whole concept of psychohistory from his Foundation series is extremely intriguing, and shaped my attitudes about history and the digital humanities even before I got in to Draper. The only SF author I can think of who has been more directly influential in the sciences themselves is Arthur C. Clarke, whose theories in 2001 about space travel and gravitational pull have actually be utilized by NASA.

    I guess my question then is this. How could we improve on the Three Laws of Robotics? Are they perfect the way there are? Clearly, as evidenced by these two chapters, they are not infallible. But what would something better look like?

    2) I could probably talk for hours about Metropolis, so I’ll distill this in to one particularly interesting thing I noticed. Robo-Maria seemed to me to be portrayed, visually at least, as a sort of Liberty Leading the People kind of figure. Yet, while that painting has a positive connotation, Robo-Maria is very clearly a negative force. Is this a specific commentary on the French Revolution? Or was it more of a way of playing with expected tropes? I found the whole message and treatment of the lower class int he movie quite curious, seeing as they were portrayed both sympathetically and extremely negatively, depending on the scene. Could this be explained by the presence of Robo-Maria, who seems to cause discord wherever she goes? Does she cause discord because she’s a robot? Are robots inherently evil, or is it simply the only robot we see is being used for evil?

    3) What’s up with Thanos? It feels like every movie we get some new teaser that he’s up to something but its been years now and its still all just hints. Its becoming quite frustrating at this point. Will he, like Captain America and the other main Avengers, get his own stand alone movie at some point to explain what he’s up to? Or will we be forever teased?

    4) Cutie, without realizing it, follows a similar line of reasoning as Descartes vis a vis rationalizing its own existence. What does this say about the relationship between the human brain and the positronic brain? Does it demonstrate that robots think and rationalize in a way similar to humans? Or does it mean nothing? Is it all coincidence?

  2. Johnathan McCauley October 5, 2016 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    I noticed in the chapter Runaround of Asimov’s piece, the word Primitive is used to describe the obsolete or outdated robots. How is it that here, when describing robots that are less sophisticated, “primitive” seems not to be such a trigger word, but when we use it to describe humans it causes such an inflammation of spirits?

    Consistency question in the Runaround section of Asimov’s piece. . . . With the more outdated robot, whom I assume still follows the 3 cardinal rules of robothood, If Rule 1 is: a robot may not let a human come to harm through action or inaction and this is the trumping rule so to speak, how was this outdated robot able to Greg’s order not help him when he was dying?

    We are often inventing more advanced forms of technology for the mere sake of invention (enter google glass, the apple watch, etc.). This kind of blind advancing could destroy us in the robotics field (as almost happens in the Reason section of I, Robot). Why would someone ever even want to create a robot that was so human? Why not keep them more like “mechanical slaves” as Asimov mentions with no murmurs of consciousness? I feel like the ethical issue of how we treat robots (see John Petinos’ Humans episode) only ever comes into question when the robots reach a certain degree of advancement and humanness. If I kick a dent into my refrigerator, no one is going to come arrest me. Hell, I just did kick my refrigerator and I don’t think anyone cares. And they shouldn’t. It’s a refrigerator. Make Robots Dumb Again 2016.

  3. Sophie October 5, 2016 at 7:41 pm - Reply

    1) In the short story “Reason” by Isaac Asimov, what are QT1’s human characteristics? Why doesn’t the robot believe that planets exist?

    2) How can we compare last year’s technological advances in robotics to those in Asimov’s “Runaround”?

    3) Although humans are the creators of the machines in “Metropolis,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and Asimov’s short stories, are we becoming more dependent on technology to the point of hindering our own development, and do these works depict human dependency on machinery as a positive or negative phenomenon?

  4. Sigrid von Wendel October 5, 2016 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    Control is a big theme in most AI (and clone) narratives. The plots predictably center around humans loosing control of their creations, who are usually evil and out to get us. In all the text of this week, AI is dangerous or frustrating to humanity. AI scares me, but I think this is because I’ve only considered it within the context of a dramatic book or movie that needs conflict in order to be interesting and compelling to the reader. Banishing thoughts of Ultron and murderous AI of his sort, and thinking about AI in a less charged context, it seems much less concerning. Loosing control of something you create is uncomfortable, whether it is a robot or a human child. But that doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong. Can we consider creating AI just as another form of child birth and rearing?

    Of course there are some key differences between AI and human children. First of all, the AI is not genetically linked to the creator in the same way that parents and children share DNA. But there are ample examples of two people who share DNA being radically different from each other and even killing each other. Can we really count on DNA as a guarantee of loyalty and benevolence?
    AI is made of material that looks or behaves differently than human flesh. Humans might perceive this as a threat because a. the material is superior, and therefore AI presents a threat of outliving its creator or b. simply because AI looks like an “other,” and therefore not to be trusted, in the way that some people distrust others simply because they have a different appearance. But aren’t our children made of a superior material (less deteriorated, stronger, and likely to live longer thanks to scientific advances)? Hasn’t history shown that appearance or genetic make up is little indication of how an individual will behave?

    The impulses of controlling AI and controlling a child are almost indistinguishable. It is not surprising that Cutie views the world in a radically different way than it’s “parents.” Many children have extremely different perspectives than their parents do. By definition, AI can develop and produce novel thoughts. Cutie is doing what it was designed to do, in the same way that children who grow up and acquire new skills and understanding of survival (broadly defined) are doing what they are designed to. AI demanding rights or functioning outside of their owner/parent’s initial conception is similar to a child growing into an adult and defying parental expectations or wish. Or asking for more than their parents expected or think is right or fair.

    Robo-Maria is not AI, and merely a tool used by her masters. This makes her unthreatening to me, or at least no more or less threatening than a gun or bomb. She is basically a drone that can dance. Her unique power is that she looks human and can seduce humans into action. But plenty of humans already do that. Is Robo-Maria really any different from conventional weapons or soldiers?

  5. iautin October 5, 2016 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    Nerd interrogatives:

    Reading/seeing Asimov and the Marvel movie side by side is the best match-up ever! They are asking the same question: What happens once the machine is able to assess reality? How will it cope? Will it accept the context to which it was brought as intended? Or will it go batshit crazy and kill everyone in the world? Apparently we are more inclined towards the latter possibility. Which raises the question, “why did Tony Stark forget to include Asimov’s three rules of robotics on Ultron? That’s basic, man!

    Also I kept thinking, is it possible that Science Fiction gets better with time? I need we think to accept the fact. Look at the progression Metropolis-Asimov-Marvel Cinematic Universe. Science Fiction is a composite term, and our science is getting better, that we can confirm. Doesn’t this hint that the fiction is getting better by association?

    Is Space Dandy’s “QT” a tribute to Asimov or just plain name theft?

    Stray comments:
    Cutie: I think therefore I am. Legion: I am. //// Descartes is still our playbook for the moment of consciousness inception
    Sorry for short post, have to go read the Cyborg Handbook at NYPL because they won’t let it circulate. bye.

    • iautin October 5, 2016 at 8:00 pm - Reply


  6. Sam October 5, 2016 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    1. Debora Battaglia in “Multiplicities,” writes “feature film replicants and clones are corporealizations of the supplement’s capacity to destabilize the social paradigms and self-knowledge of their creators.” (p. 496) This destabilization is almost comically apparent in Asimov’s “Reason,” when, for a moment, Cutie almost convinces Donovan that he is a superior model compared to Donovan and Powell. (p. 62) Inevitably, it seems, the created overthrows or at least equals or surpasses the ability of the creator in some sense. There is often the theme of suppressed creations challenging, overthrowing, or subverting oppressive creators. How do we a narrative that avoids the overarching distrust (as we saw in Humans) of robots/replicants/clones and the like? How do we subvert our human inclination towards the “uncanny valley,” where we view simulated humans with revulsion? (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/robots-human-uncanny-valley)

    2. Oehlert, in “From Captain America to Wolverine,” in The Cyborg Handbook, says, “The very ambiguity with which many of the cyborg heroes are portrayed, good guys become bad guys and vice versa, is indicative of our unease with these kinds of creations.”(p. 226) We see this in Age of Ultron with the reversal of Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, and throughout the Avengers series in general. Good becomes bad becomes good again, ad nauseam. If our moral compass in relation to cyborgs is so unsteady, why do we continue to make our cyborgs heroes, and our heroes cyborgs?

    3. In Metropolis, we see humans as slaves to machinery, ascending and descending as drones, whirling about on machines that do not have clearly defined purposes. A man ceaselessly, though purposelessly, turns the dials on a clock. These images are much like what Tomas describes in “Art, Psychasthenic Assimilation, and the Cybernetic Automaton,” and how the performance viewed body as component, and reimagines it as a “cybernetic automaton,” “a representational interface and threshold between an organic world and the world of machines” (Cyborg Handbook, p. 261) At what point do we begin to call a biological human an automaton as a result of their environment and external factors?

  7. Arline October 5, 2016 at 8:22 pm - Reply

    Throughout “Avengers: The Age of Ultron” the team is referred to as “Gods” (except Hawkeye) and “Monsters.” They also define themselves in opposition to Vision as a different species (making it okay that he picked up Thor’s hammer). Are these definitions mutually exclusive? What makes a monster?

    Why does the Machine-Man Maria have a heart? Can the heart be corrupted?

    How does Tony Stark’s second creation (Vision) respond to Battaglia’s claim that: “inevitably, these films tell us, the human artifact will escape the creator’s control and intentionally or otherwise defeat the creator’s program, even when this program is relatively benign or expressly therapeutic (497).” We can extend this question to who is actually in charge in Metropolis?

  8. Stacy Shirk October 5, 2016 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    In the first footnote of “Multiplicities,” Battaglia brings up religion in relation to cloning. In a continuation of Frankenstein, should we look at cloning as a sort of blasphemy? Is cloning different from what Dr. Frankenstein did because we are merely copying “God’s creation,” rather than making our own?

    For my paper this week, I happened to write about Never Let Me Go, the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro that focuses on a group of (spoiler) clones. They negate Battaglia’s claim that “the human artifact will escape the creator’s control and intentionally or otherwise defeat the creator’s program” (p. 497). The clones in Never Let Me Go passively accept their fate – the most they rebel is by seeking a deferral for their inevitable organ donations. How do we fit something like Never Let Me Go, or even Vision from Avengers: Age of Ultron, into Battaglia’s piece? Why are these works different, and are there more examples of this difference in recent years? Even in Jurassic World, which I bring up because Jurassic Park was one of Battaglia’s examples, we see something similar to Avengers: Age of Ultron in that there’s the villain, a new dinosaur creation gone out of control, but it is eventually defeated by dinosaur clones who are controlled and loyal to the humans. “Multiplicities” was written in 2001 – could a change in our culture or technology be leading to different representations of clones?

  9. jexcell October 5, 2016 at 9:49 pm - Reply

    I generally enjoy stories whose narratives consist of a problem to be solved through logical reasoning. This is why I like mysteries, and it’s why I enjoyed “Runaround”. I appreciated the solid progression of rational steps that the characters take to solve their problem, and this appreciation was furthered by the absolute logic of the problem they had to solve: the behavior of robots. In “Reason,” this logic is turned on its head- seemingly rational thought leads QT to conclude that a piece of machinery is his Creator, and humans are deluded, lesser beings. This shift disturbed me, and I wasn’t sure what conclusions to draw from it regarding logic and rationality. At what point should we stop trusting ‘reason’ and upon what should we rely when it fails us?

    QT seems to possess qualities of intuition, compassion, and intelligence, but he is still blinded by his own logic, and perhaps, by his own arrogance. Is there any real distinction drawn in this story between human perception and that of the robot? Is there any implication that human reasoning is at all superior?

    In Battaglia’s article “Multiplicities: an anthropologist’s thoughts on replicants and clones in popular film,” she argues that “replicants and clones are corporealizations of the supplement’s capacity to destabilize the social paradigms and self-knowledge of their creators” (496). I can see how this argument is represented in “Reason,” but in “Runaround” the robots do not seem to me to destabilize their creators in any way. Is this a result of their lower intelligence, and if so, must “supplements” possess equal or greater intelligence to their creators in order for Battaglia’s argument to hold?

  10. cpeterson October 5, 2016 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    1. Does Avengers: Age of Ultron cross the line between science fiction and fantasy? Do the characters of Thor and Vision declassify this as science fiction? So much is invested in creating a god-like aura around the Avengers. Is is done so much as to make them magical?

    2. One can see that the more time passes the more machines can do. For all of time machines are accomplishing more of our purposes. Do human purposes become the machine’s purposes? Can a machine ever cross a threshold of being able to have purposes of its own? Is having purposes a necessary condition of sentience?

    3. In Metropolis, the protagonist has a vision of in which humans are sacrificed to the machines. Is it necessary that technology is dystopian? Can it not be that technology becomes utopian somehow? Is it does occur that a technology is utopian can this be done without violating human agency? Must we become slaves to the machine?

  11. jpetinos October 6, 2016 at 6:16 pm - Reply

    1) In “Reason,” Cutie refuses to accept that it is created by humans, despite books and conversation indicating otherwise. How does Asimov illustrate the larger concepts of faith and the limits of knowledge? How does he allow readers to examine the concept of a creator, both of robots, and also of humans?

    2) Ultron becomes networked, and inhabits many systems simultaneously. What does this say about the concept of a soul, or about a consciousness that exists outside of a brain or a physical body?

    3) In Asimov’s stories, and in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, humans have the expectation that artificial intelligence, imbued with self awareness, will obey human commands. At what point does AI gain self awareness, and why in fiction are we so often presented with the assumption that self awareness will cause AI to care at all about, let alone act malevolently, towards humans? What does this say about the fear of the unknown, or ‘other’? How much science is present in the science fiction of artificial intelligence, based on current understanding of machine learning and artificial intelligence?

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