I’m reading tweets from space. More specifically, the twitter feed of @VanguardAdrift, part of an interactive art experience I read about in an article titled ‘Tweet me, I’m About to Die in Space’ (https://www.newscientist.com/article/2120497-tweet-me-im-about-to-die-in-space/). Artists Cath Le Couteur and Nick Ryan’s Project Adrift incorporates a combination of film, soundscape, and twitter feeds to explore the ‘lives’ of space junk, of which there are now more than 170 million pieces in orbit around the Earth. The oldest surviving man-made space object still in orbit, Vanguard 1, tweets updates about its journey around Earth at 21,630km/h. As I’m writing this, it tweets ‘I was there when the ISS was first launched; when astronauts began to live in space. I will outlive them all’.
The anthropomorphising of these pieces of metal whirling around the Earth is designed to raise awareness about the growing problem of space junk. However, built in 1958, Vanguard 1 does not possess the sentience to write these missives, though I think the project is awesomely nerdy and the existential tweets are cool. But surely it stops being anthropomorphising once the object possesses its own intelligence? When a machine can think for itself? In this week’s New Yorker, I’m reading an article (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/ai-versus-md) by Siddhartha Mukherjee investigating machine-learning diagnostic algorithms, specifically those that can detect and diagnose skin cancer, which utilise a computing strategy known as a ‘neural network’ modeled on how the human brain functions. In a process called ‘deep learning’, the machine recognises various types of skin lesions and gives a diagnosis on whether or not it is cancerous, with the trials the article discusses finding that the machine outperforms human dermatologists in accuracy. The fascinating thing is that the scientists running these programs don’t really understand how the computer is learning. They call this the ‘black box problem’ because ‘all the internal adjustments and processes that allow the network to learn happen away from our scrutiny’. This to me is staggering; the computer is learning on its own and we don’t know how. Currently, while the algorithm can accurately diagnose cancerous lesions it cannot investigate the cause; it cannot understand the ‘why’. But, at the speed at which this technology is developing, the ability to understand meaning and cause can’t be that far away.
I’m writing about posthumanism and AI in my current collection of speculative fiction, thinking a lot about robots and imagining machine intelligence that replicates human consciousness in its complexity. With sentience comes the ability to feel, to love, to suffer. In ‘Using/Abusing Fembots’ (https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-225/feature-helen-heath/), Helen Heath examines some of the complex ethical dilemmas around this potentially sentient technology. Heath is interested in how gender is performed through technology and considers the ways in which cyborgs and robots reflect our culture. The discussion around sex bots I find particularly interesting, and Heath’s point that they may ‘promote the idea that consent is not a necessary part of sexual interaction in cultures already struggling to teach that ‘no means no’’ is a frightening one. I think Heath is referring to how this will affect humans, but it also makes me think about how the AI might feel about their bodies, what we will do to their bodies.
I’ve been reading some amazing fiction about AI. Recent highlights are Krissy Kneen’s novel An Uncertain Grace, a wonderful genre hybrid – kind of speculative erotic cli-fi – which, through five sections, grapples with questions of consent, of gender and sexuality, of the ways in which technology will affect these. I’m thinking about the third of the five parts, narrated by Cameron, a child robot designed for use in the study of hebephiles, as I’m writing this. Provocative and challenging and beautiful, this book is one of my stand-out reads in the past few years. And Tegan Webb’s short story ‘Sex Machine’ (https://www.scum-mag.com/sex-machine/) is my favourite kind of speculative fiction, taking the commonplace (having a crush on a babe who plays in a band at the Tote) and twisting it slightly (babe is a sexy robot). From the narrator’s awkward flirting to Flo’s awesome agency over her robotic body, this is a clever piece of short fiction exploring AI sexuality.
While thinking about where we are going, how new technologies will affect our lives and the potential lives of beings we will create, I’m also thinking about how we’ve got here and what we’ve done to this planet in the process. Recently, a friend lent me Melanie Challenger’s On Extinction (Ellen, I’m sorry – I will return it!). Through her travels, Challenger explores the ways in which humanity has become estranged from nature and the mindset that has led to our destructiveness. From abandoned whaling stations in Antarctica to a riverboat in Cambridge, Challenger’s haunting poetic prose attempts to understand the dramatic rise in extinctions and the stories behind these losses. Many of the losses Challenger documents are due to humanity’s seeming inability to stop expanding, polluting, consuming. I’m trying not to get freaked out about the future. I’m trying not to think about the fact that we’ve filled space with so much junk that our early enthusiastic ventures into it will ultimately haunt us by making it that much harder for us to leave our planet. I’m trying to hope it doesn’t come to that. Maybe the robots can save us.
Else Fitzgerald’s writing has appeared in various places including Australian Book Review, The Suburban Review, Offset, Visible Ink, and Award Winning Australian Writing. Her work has won or been commended in awards including the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition, the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, and the Margaret River Short Story Award. Else is currently the Program Manager at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Find her at elsefitzgerald.com