The postmodern world is a territory of widespread deconstruction and reconstruction of life patterns, intense decontextualization, and dramatic scientific change. In the 21st century, technology has the power to denature most phenomena, as well as most living creatures, often for the sake of a grand, ambiguous project known as progress (Haraway, 1992). Specifically, scientific progress holds a claim of being rational, necessary and intrinsic of human nature. In the name of such ideology, which is a product of Western Enlightenment-derived postmodernism, the categories of actors and agents that naturally characterise collective life have extended to include machines (Haraway, 1992). Artificial Intelligence is one of the newest fields in science and engineering, and it attempts not just to understand but also to build intelligent entities (Russell and Norvig, 2009). Recently, issues have been raised in regards to human psychological finiteness, bounded by biological evolution, which would cause to succumb to artificial agents. Consequently, the definition of the postmodern world as the womb of a monster becomes comprehensible (Haraway, 1992). However, questions naturally arise in regards to the nature of this monster. Namely, to what extent is Artificial Intelligence a monstrous synthesis of Western culture and values? Is a cyborg comparable to an Ubermensch, a Superhuman that transcends life and death (Nietzsche, 1891/2010)? Or is it just the mirror of the eternal human fear of finiteness and nothingness? Is this the embodiment of a long-prophesied crisis of the European sciences (1936/1970)? And finally, is this monster necessarily evil? This essay begins with the ambition of answering these questions, and aspires to highlight the most significant, as well as controversial, developments of Artificial Intelligence in relation to monster studies. Firstly, an outline of the key concepts and theories in monster studies will be provided, as well as a first reflection on the monster itself. Secondly, the monster will be defined through a brief analysis of the main principles of Artificial Intelligence, including deep learning and neural networks. Thirdly, the post-human tendencies of the monster will be illustrated, specifically through a close comparison with Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Ultimately, the contemporary popular meaning of the monster will be investigated through films and representations in the media, and conclusive reflections will be drawn in regards to the relationship between the monster and Western values.
The eminent businessman Elon Musk recently launched Neuralink, a company that develops brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers (Neuralink, 2017). Musk explains that the firm’s objective is to turn cloud-based Artificial Intelligence into an extension of the human brain: the product will eventually enable humans to communicate through consensual telepathy (Wired, 2017). As further reported by Wired (2017), the businessman spoke about the need for transhumanism, particularly for humans to become cyborgs if they are to survive the rise of Artificial Intelligence. In regards to the topic, the literature presents conflicting opinions of both enthusiasm and suspicion. However, a closer analysis reveals the presence of a perpetual halo of anxiety and horror. In fact, titles such as Artificial Intelligence: Cannibal or Missionary?, Embracing the Post-human and Our Fear of Artificial Intelligence appear to accompany and nurture the rise of the monster (Boden, 2007; Lenoir, 2002; MIT Technology Review, 2015). The field of monster studies focuses on understanding cultures through the monsters they bear: Cohen’s (1996) seven thesis represent a remarkable attempt of building guidelines of behaviour of such cultural entities. As suggested by Cohen (1996), the monster literally incorporates fear, desire and anxiety, and it is bound to escape and come back, either as itself or in disguise. The monster always escapes because it refuses a categorization: it is a disturbing hybrid that escapes the natural order, which notoriously appears at times of crisis as an embodiment of an issue (Cohen, 1996). It can be argued that the monstrous within Artificial Intelligence is particularly well explicable through the Foucauldian discourse. According to Foucault (1966/2002), the monster is a materialization of a space of experience in which thought tests its own limits (Nuzzo, 2013). Therefore, to think of the monster implies to think of hybridization, of an experience of the limit, which can be of political, ethical or moral dimension. On one hand, it can be argued that projects such as Neuralink have tremendous potential in helping those affected by severe brain injuries, and that, therefore, Artificial Intelligence shall carry positive connotations (WIRED, 2017; Neuralink, 2017). However, on the other, it can be argued that the monster does not only incarnate a period of uncertainty, but it also illustrates a void that is both philosophical and existential.
The paradox of an intelligent, even conscious, machine is outstanding: in the last few years, several figures of public prominence, including Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have expressed deep concern in regards to the developments of Artificial Intelligence (BBC, 2014; BBC, 2016). This essay adopts and applies science with the purpose of transcending it: the objective is to challenge the implications and rationality of Artificial Intelligence. Science is here intended as an instrument of liberation from the scientific doctrine, in other words, as a unique opportunity for critique and reflection. Artificial Intelligence is an interdisciplinary field, that integrates mathematics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, economics, linguistics and computer engineering (Russell and Norvig, 2009). Traditionally, Artificial Intelligence is concerned with reasoning and behaviour, and attempts to combine the acts of thinking and acting humanly, with those of thinking and acting rationally, in a single machine (Russell and Norvig, 2009). As further suggested by Russell and Norvig (2009), the subfield of Artificial Intelligence known as Machine Learning emphasises the importance for an artificial agent to learn from its own experience. Remarkable attention has been drawn on a machine learning technique known as Artificial Neural Networks, for its significant flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances (Tautu and Leon, 2012; Khan et al., 2010; Liu and Fujisawa, 2007). Artificial Neural Networks are constituted by units, which emulate the properties of human brain cells, connected by direct links, which operate similarly to human dendrites, axons and synapses. Modern control theory of such systems, including the branch known as stochastic optimal control, focuses on designing systems that maximise a function over time (Russell and Norvig, 2009). In light of these considerations, it can be argued that the popular suspicion of Artificial Intelligence is associated to fear of a perfection that human beings cannot achieve. However, is this how it should be? Should humans be inferior to science, which is the fruit of their thought? I associate the dependence of human lives to science to a new type of crisis, that is blinded by the hope of a mindless progress (Husserl, 1936/1970). Within this framework, contemporary civilization loses the sense of functionality of progress, and turns away from the most important questions of human life.
In this case, the monstrous synthesis of human standards of achievements, as well as the embodiment of all fears, is the image of a cyborg. With reference to the concept of Machine Learning illustrated above, 21st century machines blur the line between natural and artificial, between self-developing and externally designed (Haraway, 1991). Nevertheless, the fact that personalities like Elon Musk advocate the need for human-machine transhumanism, suggests a common pleasure in the confusion of boundaries. A cyborg is a cybernetic entity, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of both social reality and fiction (Haraway, 1991). The cyborg is a new kind of monster, remarkably different from those of the past centuries. The monster in Late Victorian Gothic fiction, for instance, had evident animal characteristics, which distinguished it from the category of man (Ortiz-Robles, 2015). Yet, the origins of the term cyborg suggest a divergent imagery. “The Cyborg study is the study of man” is the first, mysterious sentence of a study published by NASA in regards to the characteristics of a future human that can survive in space (Driscoll, 1963, pp.76). It is not surprising, then, that a conspicuously large number of cyborg configurations found in art and in science fiction have human contours (Kuni, 2015). In Western culture, the traditional genealogy of man created in God’s likeness is crucial: with Artificial Intelligence, humans become Creators and finally overcome their natural finiteness. The cyborg incarnates both the deepest crisis of humanity, death, and its eternal aspiration of being limitless. Artificial Intelligence clearly portrays a conflict between religion and science: the creation of artificial sentient agents appears to communicate a decline of religious values, of Christian morals and of God itself. It is in the name of this crisis that, in Western culture, the cyborg appears as an Ubermensch in which both nature and intelligence are objective, ultimately beyond good and evil (Nietzsche, 1891/2010; Nietzsche, 1886/2002). In this case, crisis and monstrosity coincide in a single concept: to have surpassed the biological betterment of natural selection, and to have created, as a species, an optimal and unachievable, yet bloodless and loveless, therefore monstrous, offspring.
Due to revolutionary technological and scientific developments over the past few decades, the boundaries between biology/human/subject and technology/machine/object have become increasingly blurred (Hellstrand, 2015). An intriguing representation of the above-mentioned dichotomies is provided by the film Ex Machina (2015), which main character has been chosen to be the human component of an exceptional Turing test (1950). The machine to be tested is not only capable of thought and consciousness, but also displays the physical features of a beautiful woman. Ava, the machine, fools the main character into a love affair and escapes the laboratory. The last scenes of the film leave no hope for Ava to be found, in a world where she looks exactly like everyone else. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway (1991) argues that cyborgs are creatures of a world without gender and without genesis, therefore, perhaps without an end. As further suggested by Haraway (1991), cyborgs interrupt the tradition of a creation controlled and dominated by humans, which, I propose, is of Biblical imagery. However, it seems appropriate to highlight the significance of the monster’s sexuality in Ex Machina (2015), where, it can be argued, Ava embodies a new genesis as well as a new Eve (Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, 1886/2013). The questionable principles of her creation, the eroticisation of her synthetic flesh and her eventual selfishness contribute to her novelty, as well as to her stereotype. The patriarchal concept of temptress, malicious woman is here integrated, and ultimately surpassed, by that of a new evil: an artificial genesis, a utilitarian sexuality, an invisible monster. In Ex Machina (2015), the monster outperforms the Creator in terms of intelligence and manipulates the Turing test (1950) to its favour. For this reason, it can be argued that the monstrosity of cyborgs and of Artificial Intelligence also derives from an extreme closeness and similarity to human beings. Such similarity is what sparks human fear of replacement, and what ultimately suggests and requires, as announced by Elon Musk (2017), a human-machine synthesis.
Ex Machina (2015) is not the only attempt of picturing the near future of Artificial Intelligence. Films such as I, Robot (2004), Her (2013) and Interstellar (2014), as well as TV series including Westworld (2016) and Black Mirror (2013), explore contemporary reality and potential future through Orwellian metaphors and concepts. In other words, science-fiction often presents a world in which the post-human tendencies of Artificial Intelligence question the supremacy of human beings, which category is ephemeral and contested (Hellstrand, 2015). However, is this truly the case? Is the human species indeed destined for surrender, or at least synthesis with the monster? On one hand, it seems necessary to highlight the positive achievements of Artificial Intelligence in recent years. In fact, the Machine Learning technique of Artificial Neural Networks has already been employed in several studies to detect and examine a variety of diseases, including cervical and breast cancer (Gupta et al., 2015; Guerra et al., 2013). On the other hand, monstrous developments come from the fields of music and visual arts, which, in recent years, have witnessed the advent of Artificial Intelligence. Through deep learning algorithms and Artificial Neural Networks, the Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist “Aiva” reads through a database of classical partitions written by the most famous composers, and outputs its very own music (Futurism, 2017; Aiva Technologies, 2016; Fox and Khan, 2013). Besides, the computer vision program Deep Dream created by Google Brain uses a convolutional Neural Network to find and enhance patterns in images (Futurism, 2017). Purposely over-processed images have a surreal and dreamlike aspect, and are often referred to as artistic. The monstrosity of these creations is evident: a machine results apparently better than a human being at doing something that is creative and highly emotional, and thus inherently human. Both in The Birth of Tragedy and in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (1872/1999; 1886/2002) highlights the similarities between music and language in terms of communication and universal understanding. However, in those works, music is not only the highest form of art, but it is also a means of alleviation and salvation from emptiness, hardship and existential exile (Higgins, 1986). Thus, what is music, if not filling the void with sound? And what is a song made by a machine, if not the sound of nothing? The above considerations truly underline the dual nature of the monster, and ultimately accentuate the fundamental role of human beings at its rise: to think and to act as creators, and to stem evil in favour of prosperity.
Throughout the essay, the most recent developments of Artificial Intelligence have been illustrated, not without pride for the beneficial and remarkable achievement that this field may represent. Moreover, abundant and diverse evidence has been gathered, including philosophical reflections and media interpretations, to illustrate the monstrosity of recent discoveries and developments. Particularly, attention has been concentrated on the figure of cyborg, which ultimately appears as a distorted duplicate of human beings. In other words, in the 21st century, humans are all theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism: in short, humans are all cyborgs (Haraway, 1991). The monster is both a cyborg and a human sentiment of fear and worthlessness, the latter being strong enough to eradicate Western values of classic genealogy and love, and substitute them with scientific surrogates. Artificial Intelligence doesn’t only reject ordinary concepts of life as a product of biological conception, but also denatures humans by presenting them as dystopian Creators. To conclude, I would like to suggest some insight for future research in regards to the interaction between monster studies and Artificial Intelligence. Recent tendencies within Artificial Intelligence involve several of its founders advocating a return to the field’s roots, through the strive for machines that think, learn and create, and through the research of an algorithm for learning and behaving in any environment (Minsky, 2006; Nilsson, 2005; Russell and Norvig, 2009). As mentioned previously, it can be argued that mindless scientific development loses its functionality: further investigations shall be conducted on the relationship between progress, functionality and fear, as a monstrous progress is controversial and potentially unjustifiable. Moreover, additional material shall be gathered in regards to a hypothetical technological revolution, and to the roles that humans and machines would possess within it. So far, the truth appears to be that the monster is still unconscious: us as humans have the power to leave it dormant, and prosper through Artificial Intelligence’s employment in welfare, health and engineering. Nevertheless, recent scientific applications, as well as the relevant philosophy and literature, suggest that a human-machine synthesis may entail a hubristic deterioration of the human species, as well as a total decline of Western culture and values.
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