John Danaher interview – Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications

Gigolo Jane and Gigolo Joe robots in the film A.I.

Via Philosophical Disquisitions.

Through the wonders of the modern technology, myself and Adam Ford sat down for an extended video chat about the new book Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications (MIT Press, 2017). You can watch the full thing above or on youtube. Topics covered include:

  • Why did I start writing about this topic?
  • Sex work and technological unemployment
  • Can you have sex with a robot?
  • Is there a case to be made for the use of sex robots?
  • The Campaign Against Sex Robots
  • The possibility of valuable, loving relationships between humans and robots
  • Sexbots as a social experiment

Be sure to check out Adam’s other videos and support his work.

Reblog> Robots: ethical or unethical?

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

From Peter-Paul Verbeek.


To highlight the relevance of the UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) and to present its recent report on the ethics of robotics, the Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to UNESCO will organize a lunch debate on “Robots: ethical or unethical?” during the 39th General Conference, on Friday 10 November 2017, in Room X from 13:00 to 14:15.

The session will be opened by H.E. Ambassador Lionel Veer and Ms Nada Al-Nashif, Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, and will be moderated by Prof. Peter-Paul Verbeek, COMEST member and philosopher.

The issues addressed will be the following:

· What change caused by robots can we expect? Presented by Prof. Vanessa Evers, University of Twente

· Which are the ethical dilemmas? Presented by Prof. Mark Coeckelbergh, University of Vienna

· How can we ensure that innovation is ethical? Presented by Prof. Peter-Paul Verbeek, University of Twente (COMEST member)

The presentations will be followed by an interactive debate with the audience and by a reflection on the role of UNESCO and the COMEST on these issues.

Reblog> New paper: A smart place to work? Big data systems, labour, control, and modern retail stores

Gilbreth motion studies light painting

From the Programmable City team, looks interesting:

New paper: A smart place to work? Big data systems, labour, control, and modern retail stores

The modern retail store is a complex coded assemblage and data-intensive environment, its operations and management mediated by a number of interlinked big data systems. This paper draws on an ethnography of a superstore in Ireland to examine how these systems modulate the functioning of the store and working practices of employees. It was found that retail work involves a continual movement between a governance regime of control reliant on big data systems which seek to regulate and harnesses formal labour and automation into enterprise planning, and a disciplinary regime that deals with the symbolic, interactive labour that workers perform and acts as a reserve mode of governmentality if control fails. This continual movement is caused by new systems of control being open to vertical and horizontal fissures. While retail functions as a coded assemblage of control, systems are too brittle to sustain the code/space and governmentality desired.

Access the PDF here

The Economist ‘Babbage’ podcast: “Deus Ex Machina”

Glitched still from the film "Her"

An interesting general (non-academic, non-technical) discussion about what “AI” is, what it means culturally and how it is variously thought about. Interesting to reflect on the way ideas about computation, “algorithms”, “intelligence” and so on play out… something that maybe isn’t discussed enough… I like the way the discussion turns around “thinking” and the suggestion of the word “reckoning”. Worth a listen…

Are we all addicts now? Furtherfield 16 Sept – 12 Nov.

This looks really interesting…

Are We All Addicts Now?

Furtherfield Gallery, 16 September – 12 November 2017.

Featuring Katriona Beales and Fiona MacDonald.

The exhibition and research project Are We All Addicts Now? explores the seductive and addictive qualities of the digital.

Artist Katriona Beales’ work addresses the sensual and tactile conditions of her life lived online: the saturated colour and meditative allure of glowing screens, the addictive potential of infinite scroll and notification streams. Her new body of work for AWAAN re-imagines the private spaces in which we play out our digital existence. The exhibition includes glass sculptures containing embedded screens, moving image works and digitally printed textiles. Beales’ work is complemented by a new sound-art work by artist and curator Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice.

Beales celebrates the sensuality and appeal of online spaces, but criticises how our interactions get channeled through platforms designed to be addictive – how corporations use various ‘gamification’ and ‘neuro-marketing’ techniques to keep the ‘user’ on-device, to drive endless circulation, and monetise our every click. She suggests that in succumbing to online behavioural norms we emerge as ‘perfect capitalist subjects’.

For Furtherfield, Beales has constructed a sunken ‘bed’ into which visitors are invited to climb, where a glowing glass orb flutters with virtual moths repeatedly bashing the edges of an embedded screen. A video installation, reminiscent of a fruit machine, displays a drum of hypnotically spinning images whose rotation is triggered by the movement of gallery visitors. Beales recreates the peculiar, sometimes disquieting, image clashes experienced during her insomniac journeys through endless online picture streams – beauty products lining up with death; naked cats with armed police.

Entering the Machine Zone (2017) Katriona Beales

Glass-topped tables support the amorphous curves of heavy glass sculptures, which refract the multi-coloured light of tiny screens hidden inside. Visualisations of eye-tracking data (harvested live from gallery visitors) scatter across the ceiling. On the exterior wall of the gallery, an LED scrolling sign displays text Beales’ has compiled, based on comments from online forums about internet addiction.

Where Beales addresses the near-inescapability of machine-driven connection, Feral Practice draws us into the networks in nature. Mycorrhizal Meditation is a sound-art work for free download, accessed via posters in Furtherfield Gallery and across Finsbury Park. MM takes the form of a guided meditation, journeying through the human body and down into the ‘underworld’ of living soil, with its mycorrhizal network formed of plant roots and fungal threads. It combines spoken word and sound recordings of movement and rhythm made in wooded places. Feral Practice complicates the idea of nature as ‘ultimate digital detox’, and alerts us to the startling interconnectivity of beyond-human nature, the ‘wood-wide-web’ that pre-dates our digital connectivity by millennia. (Download Mycorrhizal Mediation here)

Reblog> Digital Neuroland

Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters with a brain scanner on his head

Via Tony Sampson. Freely available digital publication, follow the link

Digital Neuroland by Rizosfera

Very pleased to be part of this great series…



Introduction by Rizosfera
Digital Neuroland. An interview with Tony D. Sampson  by Rizosfera
Contagion Theory Beyond the Microbe
‘Tarde as Media Theorist’: an interview with Tony D. Sampson by Jussi Parikka
Crowd, Power and Post-democracy in 21st Century by Obsolete Capitalism
Crowds vs publics, Ukraine vs Russia, the Gaza crisis, the contagion theory and netica – a dialogue with Tony D. Sampson by Rares Iordache

Reblog> Humans and machines at work

A warehouse worker and robot

Via Phoebe Moore. Looks good >>

Humans and Machines coverHumans and machines at work: monitoring, surveillance and automation in contemporary capitalism edited by Phoebe V. Moore, Martin Upchurch and Xanthe Whittaker.
This edited collection is now in production/press (Palgrave, Dynamics of Virtual Work series editors Ursula Huws and Rosalind Gill). This is the results of the symposium I organised for last year’s International Labour Process Conference (ILPC). We are so fortunate to have 9 women and 3 men authors from all over the world including Chinese University Hong Kong, Harvard, WA University St Louis, Milan, Sheffield, Lancaster, King’s College, Greenwich, and Middlesex researchers, two trade unionists from UNI Global Union and Institute for Employment Rights, early career and more advanced contributors.

In the era of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, we increasingly work with machines in both cognitive and manual workplaces. This collection provides a series of accounts of workers’ local experiences that reflect the ubiquity of work’s digitalisation. Precarious gig economy workers ride bikes and drive taxis in China and Britain; domestic workers’ timekeeping and movements are documented; call centre workers in India experience invasive tracking but creative forms of worker subversion are evident; warehouse workers discover that hidden data has been used for layoffs; academic researchers see their labour obscured by a ‘data foam’ that does not benefit us; and journalists suffer the algorithmic curse. These cases are couched in historical accounts of identity and selfhood experiments seen in the Hawthorne experiments and the lineage of automation. This collection will appeal to scholars in the sociology of work and digital labour studies and anyone interested in learning about monitoring and surveillance, automation, the gig economy and quantified self in workplaces.

Table of contents:

Chapter 1: Introduction. Phoebe V. Moore, Martin Upchurch, Xanthe Whittaker

Chapter 2: Digitalisation of work and resistance. Phoebe V. Moore, Pav Akhtar, Martin Upchurch

Chapter 3: Deep automation and the world of work. Martin Upchurch, Phoebe V. Moore

Chapter 4: There is only one thing in life worse than being watched, and that is not being watched: Digital data analytics and the reorganisation of newspaper production. Xanthe Whittaker

Chapter 5: The electronic monitoring of care work – the redefinition of paid working time. Sian Moore and L. J. B. Hayes

Chapter 6: Social recruiting: control and surveillance in a digitised job market. Alessandro Gandini and Ivana Pais

Chapter 7: Close watch of a distant manager:  Multisurveillance by transnational clients in Indian call centres. Winifred R. Poster

Chapter 8: Hawthorne’s renewal: Quantified total self. Rebecca Lemov

Chapter 9: ‘Putting it together, that’s what counts’: Data foam, a Snowball and researcher evaluation. Penny C. S. Andrews

Chapter 10: Technologies of control, communication, and calculation: Taxi drivers’ labour in the platform economy. Julie Yujie Chen

Gilbreth’s motion studies films

Gilbreth motion studies light painting

Via Motion Pictures in the Human Sciences.
Parts of the lineage of some aspects of automation can be traced through this work:

“The Original Films of Frank Gilbreth”

The “industrial efficiency” expert Frank Gilbreth (1868-1924) conducted his motion studies, both in the United States and abroad, in factories, offices, hospitals and other workplaces between about 1910 and 1924. Gilbreth made his films with a 35 mm hand crank camera. The films below, despite their claim to be “original,” were actually compiled by James Perkins and Lillian Gilbreth after Gilbreth’s death in 1924. The original films are presumed lost. The above versions are silent and are from the Internet Archive; the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History has another, slightly different version, narrated by Lillian Gilbreth.

Our vascilating accounts of the agency of automated things

Rachael in the film Blade Runner

“There’s no hiding behind algorithms anymore. The problems cannot be minimized. The machines have shown they are not up to the task of dealing with rare, breaking news events, and it is unlikely that they will be in the near future. More humans must be added to the decision-making process, and the sooner the better.”

Alexis Madrigal

I wonder whether we have if not an increasing then certainly a more visible problem with addressing the agency of automated processes. In particular automation that functions predominantly through software, i.e. stuff we refer to as ‘algorithms’ and ‘algorithmic’, possibly ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’ and perhaps even ‘AI’, ‘machine learning’ and so on.  I read three things this morning that seemed to come together to concretise this thought: Alexis Madrigal’s article in The Atlantic – “Google and Facebook have failed us“, James Somers’ article in The Atlantic – “The coming software apocalypse” and LM Sacacas’ blogpost “Machines for the evasion of moral responsibility“.

In Madrigal’s article we can see how the apparent autonomy of the ‘algorithm’ becomes the fulcrum around which machinations around ‘fake news’, in this case regarding the 2nd October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. The apparent incapacity of an automated software system to perform the kinds of reasoning attributable to a ‘human’ editor is diagnosed on the one hand, and on the other the speed at which such breaking news events taking place and the volume of data being processed by ‘the algorithm’ led to Google admitting that their software was “briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our Search results for a small number of queries”. Madrigal asserts:

It’s no longer good enough to shrug off (“briefly,” “for a small number of queries”) the problems in the system simply because it has computers in the decision loop.

In Somers’ article we can see how decisions made by programmers writing software that processed call sorting and volume for the emergency services in Washington State led to the 911 phone system being inaccessible to callers for six hours one night in 2014. As Somers describes:

The 911 outage… was traced to software running on a server in Englewood, Colorado. Operated by a systems provider named Intrado, the server kept a running counter of how many calls it had routed to 911 dispatchers around the country. Intrado programmers had set a threshold for how high the counter could go. They picked a number in the millions.

Shortly before midnight on April 10, the counter exceeded that number, resulting in chaos. Because the counter was used to generating a unique identifier for each call, new calls were rejected. And because the programmers hadn’t anticipated the problem, they hadn’t created alarms to call attention to it. Nobody knew what was happening. Dispatch centers in Washington, California, Florida, the Carolinas, and Minnesota, serving 11 million Americans, struggled to make sense of reports that callers were getting busy signals. It took until morning to realize that Intrado’s software in Englewood was responsible, and that the fix was to change a single number.

Quoting an MIT Professor of aeronautics (of course) Nancy Leveson, Somers observes: “The problem,” Leveson wrote in a book, “is that we are attempting to build systems that are beyond our ability to intellectually manage.”

Michael Sacasas in his blogpost refers to Madrigal’s article and draws out arguments that the complex processes of software development, maintenance and the large and complicated organisations such as Facebook are open to those working there to work in a ‘thoughtless’ manner:

“following Arendt’s analysis, we can see more clearly how a certain inability to think (not merely calculate or problem solve) and consequently to assume moral responsibility for one’s actions, takes hold and yields a troubling and pernicious species of ethical and moral failures. …It would seem that whatever else we may say about algorithms as technical entities, they also function as the symbolic base of an ideology that abets thoughtlessness and facilitates the evasion of responsibility.”

The simplest version of what I’m getting at is this: on the one hand we attribute significant agency to automated software processes, this usually involves talking about ‘algorithms’ as quasi- or pretty much autonomous, which tends to infer that whatever it is we’re talking about, e.g. “Facebook’s algorithm”, is ‘other’ to us, ‘other’ to what might conventionally be characterised as ‘human’. On the other hand we talk about how automated processes can encode the assumptions and prejudices of the creators of those techniques and technologies, such as the ‘racist soap dispenser‘.

There’s a few things we can perhaps note about these related but potentially contradictory narratives.

First, they perhaps infer that the moment of authoring, creating, making, manufacturing is a one-off event – the things are made, the software is written and it becomes set, a bit like baking a sponge cake – you can’t take the flour, sugar, butter and eggs out again. Or, in a more nuanced version of this point – there is a sense that once set in train these things are really, really hard to change, which may, of course, be true in particular cases but also may not be a general rule. A soap dispenser’s sensor may be ‘hard coded’ to particular tolerances, whereas what gets called ‘Facebook’s algorithm’, while complicated, is probably readily editable (albeit with testing, version control and so on). This kind of narrative freights a form of determinism – there is an implied direction of travel to the technology.

Second, the kinds of automated processes I’m referring to here, ‘algorithms’ and so on, get ‘black boxed’. This is not only on the part of those who create, operate and benefit from those processes—like those frequently referred to Google, Facebook, Amazon and so on—but also in part by those who seek to highlight the black boxing. As Sacasas articulates: “The black box metaphor tries to get at the opacity of algorithmic processes”. He offers a quote from a series of posts by Kevin Hamilton which illustrates something of this:

Let’s imagine a Facebook user who is not yet aware of the algorithm at work in her social media platform. The process by which her content appears in others’ feeds, or by which others’ material appears in her own, is opaque to her. Approaching that process as a black box, might well situate our naive user as akin to the Taylorist laborer of the pre-computer, pre-war era. Prior to awareness, she blindly accepts input and provides output in the manufacture of Facebook’s product. Upon learning of the algorithm, she experiences the platform’s process as newly mediated. Like the post-war user, she now imagines herself outside the system, or strives to be so. She tweaks settings, probes to see what she has missed, alters activity to test effectiveness. She grasps at a newly-found potential to stand outside this system, to command it. We have a tendency to declare this a discovery of agency—a revelation even.

In a similar manner to the imagined participant in Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment, the Facebook user can only guess at the efficacy of their relation to the black boxed process. ‘Tweaking our settings’ and responses might, as Hamilton suggest, “become a new form of labor, one that might then inevitably find description by some as its own black box, and one to escape.” A further step here is that even those of us diagnosing and analysing the ‘black boxes’ are perhaps complicit in keeping them in some way obscure. As Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog argue: things that are obscure can be seen as ‘safe’, which is the principle of cryptography. Obscurity, for Selinger & Hartzog, “is a protective state that can further a number of goals, such as autonomy, self-fulfillment, socialization, and relative freedom from the abuse of power”. Nevertheless, obscurity can also be an excuse – the black box is impenetrable, not open to analysis and so we settle on other analytic strategies or simply focus on other things. A well-worn strategy seems to be to retreat to the ontological, to which I’ll return shortly.

Third, following from above, perhaps the ways in which we identify ‘black boxes‘ or the forms of black boxing we do ourselves over-simplifies or elides complexity. This is a difficult balancing act. A good concept becomes a short-hand that freights meaning in useful ways. However, there is always potential that it can hide as much as it reveals. In the case of the phenomena outlined in the two articles above, we perhaps focus on the ends, what we think ‘the algorithm’ does – the kinds of ‘effects’ we see, such as ‘fake news’ and the breakdown of an emergency telephone system, or even a ‘racist soap dispenser’. It is then very tempting to perform what Sally Wyatt calls a ‘justifactory’ technological determinism – not only is there a ’cause and effect’ but these things were bound to happen because of the kinds of technological processes involved. By fixing ‘algorithms’ as one kind of thing, we perhaps elide the ways in which they can be otherwise and, perhaps more seriously, elide the parts of the process of the development, resources, use and reception of those technologies and their integration into wider sociotechnical systems and society. These things don’t miraculously appear from nowhere – they are the result of lots of actions and decisions, some banal, some ‘strategic’, some with good intentions and some perhaps morally-questionable. By black boxing ‘the algorithm’, attributing ‘it’ with agency and making it ‘other’ to human activities we ignore or obscure the organisational processes that make it possible at all. I argue we cannot see these things as completely one thing or the other: the black boxed entity or the messy sociotechnical system, but rather as both and need to accommodate that sort of duality in our approaches to explanation.

Fourth, normative judgements are attached to the apparent agency of an automated system when it is perceived as core to the purpose of the business. Just like any other complicated organisation whose business becomes seen as a ‘public good’ (energy companies might be another example), competing, perhaps contradictory, narratives take hold. The purpose of the business may be to make money–in the case of Google and Facebook this is of course primarily through advertising, requiring attractive content to which to attach adverts–but the users perhaps consider their experience, which is ‘free’, more important. It seems to have become received wisdom that the very activities that drive the profits of the company, by boosting content that drives traffic and therefore serves more advertising and I assume therefore resulting in more revenue, run counter to accepted social and moral norms. This exemplifies the competing understandings of what companies like Google and Facebook do – in other words, what their ‘algorithms’ are for. This has a bearing on the kinds of stories we then tell about the perceived, or experienced, agency of the automated system.

Finally (for now), there is a tendency for academic social scientific studies of automated software systems to resort to ontological registers of analysis. There may be all sorts of reasons used as justification for this, such as specific detail of a given system is not accessible, or (quite often) only accessible through journalists, or the funding isn’t available to do the research. However, it also pays dividends to do ‘hard’ theory. In the part of academia I knock about in, geography-land and it’s neighbours, technology has been packaged up into the ‘non-human’ whereby the implication is that particular kinds of technology are entirely separate from us, humans, and can be seen to have ‘effects’ upon us and our societies. This is trendy cos one can draw upon philosophy that has long words and hard ideas in it, in particular: ‘object oriented ontology‘ (to a much lesser extent the ‘bromethean‘ accellerationists). The generalisable nature of ‘big’ theory is beguiling, it seems to permit us to make general, perhaps global, claims and often results in a healthy return in the academic currency of citations. Now, I too am guilty of resorting to theory, which is more or less abstract, through the work of Bernard Stiegler in particular, but I’d like to think I haven’t disappeared down the almost theological rabbit hole of trying to think objects in themselves through abstract language such as ‘units‘ or ‘allopoetic objects‘ and ‘perturbations’ of non-human ‘atmospheres’.

It seems to me that while geographers and others have been rightly critical of simplistic binaries of human/technical, there remains a common habit of referring to a technical system that has been written by and is maintained by ‘humans’ as other to whatever that ‘human’ apparently is, and to refer to technologically mediated activities as somehow extra-spatial, as virtual, in contra-distinction to a ‘real’. This is plainly a contradiction. On the one hand this positions the technology in question (‘algorithms’ and so on) as totally distinct from us, imbued with an ability to act without us and so potentially powerful. On the other hand if that technology is ‘virtual’ and not ‘real’ it implies it doesn’t count in some way. While in the late 90s and early 00s the ‘virtual’ technologies we discussed were often seen as somewhat inconsequential, the more contemporary concerns about ‘fake news’, malware and encoded prejudices (such as racism) have made automated software systems part of the news cycle. I don’t think it is a coincidence that we’ve moved from metaphors of liberty and community online to metaphors of ‘killer robots’, like the Terminator (of course there is a real prospect of autonomous weapons systems, as discussed elsewhere).

In the theoretical zeal of ‘decentering the human subject’ and focusing on the apparent alterity of technology, as abstract ‘objects’, we are at risk of failing to address the very concerns which are expressed in the articles by Madrigal and Somers. In a post entitled ‘Resisting the habits of the algorithmic mind‘, Sacasas suggests that automated software systems (‘algorithms’) are something like an outsourcing of problems solving ‘that ordinarily require cognitive labor–thought, decision making, judgement. It is these very activities–thinking, willing, and judging–that structure Arendt’s work in The Life of the Mind.’ The prosthetic capacity of technologies like software to in some way automate some of these processes might be liberating but they are also, as Sacasas suggests, morally and politically consequential. To ‘outsource the life of the mind’ for Sacasas means to risk being ‘habituated into conceiving of the life of the mind on the model of the problem-solving algorithm’. A corollary to this supposition I would argue is that there is a risk in the very diagnosis of this problem that we habituate ourselves to a determinism as well. As argued in the third point, above, we risk obscuring the organisational processes that make such sociotechnical systems possible at all. In the repetition of arguments that autonomous, ‘non-human’, ‘algorithms’ are already apparently doing all of these problematic things we will these circumstances upon ourselves. There is, therefore, an ethics to thinking about and analysing automation too.

Where does this leave us? I think it leaves us with some critical tools and tasks. We perhaps need not to shy away from the complexity of the systems we discuss – the ideas and words we use can do work for us, ‘algorithm’ for example freights some meaning, but we perhaps need to be careful we don’t obscure as much as we reveal. We perhaps need to use more, not fewer, metaphors. We definitely need more studies that get at the specificity of particular forms, processes and work of automation/automated systems. All of us, journalists and academics alike, need to perhaps use our words more carefully, or use more words to get at the issues.

Simply hailing the ‘rise of the robots’ is not enough. I think this reproduces an imagination of automation that is troubling and ought to be questioned (what I’ve called an ‘automative imaginary’ elsewhere, but maybe that’s too prosaic). For people like me in geography-land to retreat into ‘high’ theory and to only discuss abstract ontological/ metaphysical attributes of technology seems to me to be problematic and is a retreat from that part of the ‘life of the mind’ we claim to advance. I’m not arguing we need not retreat from theory we simply need to find a balance. A crucial issue for social science researchers of ‘algorithms’ and so on is that this sort of work is probably not the work of a lone wolf scholar, I increasingly suspect that it needs multi-disciplinary teams. It also needs to, at least in part, produce publicly accessible work (in all senses of ‘accessible’). In this sense work like the report on ‘Media manipulation and disinformation online‘ by Data & Society seems like necessary (but by no means the only) sorts of contribution. Prefixing your discipline with ‘digital’ and reproducing the same old theory but applied to ‘digital’ things won’t, I think, cut it.

Reblog> Idols of Silicon and Data

Deep Thought, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

From LM Sacasas:

Idols of Silicon and Data

In 2015, former Google and Uber engineer, Anthony Levandowski, founded a nonprofit called Way of the Future in order to develop an AI god and promote its worship. The mission statement reads as follows: “To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.”

A few loosely interconnected observations follow.

Read the full post.