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ACTRESS MACHINES

BRUCE STERLING

Science fiction author; cofounder, cyberpunk movement

Since machines don’t think, I need a better metaphor. “Actress Machines” might be useful, at least for a while.

One of my many objections to “artificial intelligence” is its stark lack of any “artificial femininity.” Real intelligence has gender, because human brains do. The majority of human brains are female.

So, if the brain’s “intelligence” is Turing-computable, then the brain’s “femininity” should also be Turing-computable. If not, then why not? One might rashly argue that femininity is somehow too mushy, squishy, and physical to ever be mechanized by software coders, but the same is true of every form of human brain activity.

“Artificial masculinity” also has those issues, because men don’t just think, they think like men. If my intelligence can be duplicated on some computational platform, but I also have to be emasculated, that’s problematic. I can’t recall many AI enthusiasts trumpeting the mental benefits of artificial castration.

Nowadays we have some novel performing entities, such as Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Google Now, and Amazon Echo. These exciting modern services often camp it up with “female” vocal chat. They talk like Turing women—or, rather, they emit lines of dialog somewhat like voice-over actresses. However, they also offer swift access to vast fields of combinatorial Big Data that no human brain could ever contain, or will ever contain.

These services are not stand-alone Turing Machines. They’re amorphous global networks, combing through clouds of Big Data, algorithmically cataloging responses from human users, providing real-time user response with wireless broadband, while wearing the pseudohuman mask of a fake individual so as to meet some basic interface-design needs. That’s what they are. Every aspect of the tired “artificial intelligence” metaphor actively gets in the way of our grasping how, why, where, and for whom that is done.

Apple Siri is not an artificial woman. Siri is an artificial actress, an actress machine—an interactive, scripted performance that serves the interests of Apple Inc. in retailing music, renting movies, providing navigational services, selling apps on mobile devices, and similar Apple enterprises. For Apple and its ecosystem, Siri serves a starring role. She’s in the spotlight of a handheld device, while they are the theater, producer, and crew.

It’s remarkable, even splendid, that Siri can engage in her Turing-like repartee with thousands of Apple users at once, but she’s not a machine becoming an intelligence. On the contrary: For excellent reasons of wealth, power, and influence, Siri is steadily getting more like a fully integrated Apple digital property. Siri is cute, charismatic, and anthropomorphic, in much the same way that Minnie Mouse once was for Disney. Like Minnie Mouse, Siri is a nonhuman cartoon front for a clever, powerful California corporation. Unlike Minnie Mouse, she’s a radically electronic cartoon with millions of active users worldwide.

Insisting on the “intelligence” framework obscures the ways that power, money, and influence are being redistributed by modern computational services. That’s bad. It’s beyond merely old-fashioned; frankly, it’s becoming part of a sucker’s game. Asking empathic questions about Apple Siri’s civil rights, her alleged feelings, her chosen form of governance, what wise methods she herself might choose to restructure human society—that tenderness doesn’t help. It’s obscurantist. Such questions hide what’s at stake. They darken our understanding. We’ll never move from the present-day Siri to a situation like that. The future is things that are much, much more like Siri, and much, much less like that.

What would really help would be some much improved, updated, critically informed language, fit to describe the modern weird-sister quartet of Siri, Cortana, Now, and Echo, and what their owners and engineers really want to accomplish, and how, and why, and what that might, or might not, mean to our own civil rights, feelings, and forms of governance and society. That’s today’s problem. Those are tomorrow’s problems even more so. Yesterday’s “machines that think” problem will never appear upon the public stage. The machine that thinks is not a machine. It doesn’t think. It’s not even an actress. It’s a moldy dress-up chest full of old, mouse-eaten clothes.

 
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