Posts Tagged ‘ cybernetics ’

Hayles and the Erasure of Embodiment

In the prologue to How We Became Posthuman, Hayles proposes two different definitions of intelligence: 1) “a property of the formal manipulation of symbols”, and 2) “enaction in the human lifeworld”, that is “embodied reality”.  The first, ‘disembodied’ version of intelligence, she suggests, occurs in Turing’s imitation game as described in “Computer Machinery and Intelligence”, identifying that seminal paper as the historical moment in which intelligence—and information—is separated from the body.  Historically, Turing’s paper is positioned at the forefront of the first wave of cybernetics, which inspired Claude Shannon’s theory of communication and the notion of information as something that can be codified and transmitted from and through one body to another, as “an entity distinct from” the physical media that carried it.  Based on her argument one would infer that, before Turing, intelligence and information were embodied.  Only definition #2 applied pre-Turing.  However, Humanism and Modernism as we’ve seen them discussed both contributed to the definition of information and intelligence—at least in the way both concepts help define us as ‘human’ and ‘modern’—as separate from material reality, predating Turing’s imitation game.

I would propose that this disembodiment takes place with Burkhardt’s historiography of the Renaissance (Davies, 16-17) and the creation of “the myth of essential and universal Man” (24):

Above all, Burkhardt’s Renaissance was the epoch of the individual.  …the concept, the central one in his understanding of the period, denotes not just those heroice or demonic uomini universali, the gifted brutal Sforzas, Borgias and Medicis who haunt the popular histories of the period, but the development of a universal capacity to think of yourself, in a fundamental way, as a free and unique being: not as Florentine or Marseillais or a sailor or a Roman Catholic or somebody’s daughter or grandson, important though all those affiliations might be, but as a free-standing, self-determining person with an identity and a name that is not simply a marker of family or ‘occupation’, but is ‘proper’… (16-17)

I’m also sure that each one of us could think of at least one other example in the history of Humanism or Modernism (or elsewhen/where) that could account for the disembodiment of intelligence/information.

Hayles even contradicts her own construction in chapter 1 by acknowledging that the “erasure of embodiment” is common to both Humanism and Posthumanism, that the humanist ideal presupposes that you possess your body but are more than just the sum of your parts (4).  Whatever part of you that makes you “you”, that is, an individual, lies beyond the material realm; and you share this ephemeral quality—let’s call it ‘identity’, or ‘self’—with all other humans.

Here’s a thought: the capacity for identity implies ‘intelligence’, in the way Hayles uses it (which I’d suggest is subtly yet distinctly different than the way Turing uses it).  For Hayles, does the reverse also follow?  That is, does intelligence imply ‘identity’?

Does the probability that the “erasure of embodiment” is not localized in the historical moment of the birth of cybernetics (but possibly in the historical construction of humanism and modernism!) invalidate her premise that intelligence should be embodied?  Is Hayles’ desire to re-insert intelligence and information in the body justified, or are Moravec’s mind children not only plausible but represent the natural (if I can use such a word) evolution of the human into the posthuman?  Another way of phrasing this question would be to ask: do you agree with Kurzweil, the transhumanists* and the notion of the Singularity, or not?  If yes, how does this change how Hayles defines the posthuman?

*as an aside, we’ve talked a lot about antihumanism, humanism, posthumanism (not to mention (premoderns, moderns, postmoderns, nonmoderns and cyborgs)… but we really haven’t said a lot about transhumanism.  What’s the deal with that, Harvey?


The MDS Robot

Meet Nexi, the first Mobile Dextrous Social (MDS) Robot, developed at MIT.

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a cross between Pinocchio and I, Robot‘s NS-5.

The MDS Robot is now commercially available by Xitome Design.

The case for robot ethics

W I R E D | Do Humanlike Machines Deserve Human Rights?

This question is starting to get debated by robot designers and toymakers. With advanced robotics becoming cheaper and more commonplace, the challenge isn’t how we learn to accept robots—but whether we should care when they’re mistreated. And if we start caring about robot ethics, might we then go one insane step further and grant them rights?

Domo w/banana (Rodney Brooks, MIT)

Robot ethics“. It’s an interesting question, and I think Daniel Roth (the essayist) does a good job of describing what’s at stake.



It’s not really about whether we’ve reached the point and/or are likely to ever reach the point when robots are created with the cognitive capacity to become self-aware and sentient. It’s at what point we’ve anthropomorphized them enough for us to feel compassionate towards them.

technology abuse“: “As technology develops animal-like sophistication, finding the thin metallic line between what’s safe to treat as an object and what’s not will be tricky.”


OK, so it’s not to say that the point at which machines can match human intellect wouldn’t be a defining moment for this argument. Just that the argument can be made without relying on it as an inevitability. Until someone can raise the level of credibility of the Singularity beyond the mere hypothetical, I prefer to err on the side of the skeptic.

The New Robot Workforce

W I R E D | Autonomous Robots Invade Retail Warehouses | WIRED Science

Video and transcript:


Next time you order a new pair of skinny jeans from, you should know that you are helping welcome in the hive-mind robot overlords of retail. Warehouses run by Gap, as well as Zappos and Staples now use autonomous robots to pluck products from their shelves and send them to you.

Human worker: “Over here, with the robots, it seems a lot better.”

Does anyone see this as the first real development this century of the division of labour paradigm? You have to wonder how the efficiency of the Kiva robots (touted as the great benefit in the article/video) will affect the human workforce (obviously, if they’re so efficient, these warehouses can function with less human workers). Where are the luddites?

And more importantly, what happens when self-awarness becomes part of the package? I see robot unions by 2100.

The Human-Robot Relationship

W I R E D | Experiments Test Human-Robot Harmony

Wired Science 13: Relationships between humans and robots are destined to change as technology advances, and it may prove useful to understand how we react to them.


This is some pretty fascinating research by Stanford U. about how we interact with robots (and esp. why it’s important).