Digital Humanities Conference Keynote: Genevieve Bell and Robots

The July 2, 2015, keynote at the Global Digital Humanities Conference in Sydney entitled “Making Life: the Art and Science of Robots” by Genevieve Bell (@feraldata), an anthropologist by degree who is now a VP at Intel, was phenomenal. It’s the best presentation I’ve heard and now I feel I am ruined for keynote presentations in the future because hers was so good. She moved so fluidly across the stage and really used the space; her voice was clear and compelling; and she used interesting stories and examples rather than just listing facts. I would love to be able to present like that one day and capture an audience.

She talked about science fiction and technology — and knew her stuff — and wove everything into powerful statements about why we need Arts minds alongside Science minds to consider the hard questions. I can’t stop thinking about and sharing with others her example of the driverless car and who is in the room when decisions are being made about which lives the algorithm might prioritize: a pedestrian in the road, a pregnant woman in the back seat, etc.

Some of the highlights I took away were:

  • You don’t want to leave engineers to build and run the world, entirely.
  • ROW = rest of world (not America) is how Silicon Valley can envision others.
  • Technology brought to life is anxiety-provoking. America goes from Furby to Apple’s Siri to Terminator without missing a beat. Yet 10 million+ Roomba vacuums have been sold.
  • Literature and film have been fascinated with bringing things to life and the consequences.
  • What questions might be ask of robots?
    • Problem of bodies: only some are marked female or minority. Do they need to look like humans?
    • Locomotion is complicated mechanics which movies make look easy.
    • What is their purpose?
    • What is degree of autonomy?
      • We already grant autonomy in many places (drones, driverless cars, Amazon algorithms, dating websites)
      • In Japan, robots are seen as our friend.
      • Who regulates the autonomy?
      • What if they become independent or sentient?
    • Is there an inner life of robots?
      • Right now, it is displayed as either poetry or death.
      • Masahiro Mori’s The Buddha in the Robot considers robots that would be more patient and Buddhist. We don’t like to acknowledge that people kill, not robots.
    • Technology is not ahistorical.
    • Conversations between engineers and scientists and Arts people should always be happening. Romantic poets were some of the only ones criticizing the Industrial Revolution.