Last sunday I went to Goldsmiths’ MFA degree show and happened upon the wonderful work of Cheryl Field. Originally trained as a biologist, she explores the promise of technology to elevate us to an enhanced state of being, and the anxieties and miscontents accompanying this emerging idea of the posthuman. I particularly liked her piece “They might keep us as pets (Come The Singularity)” which seems to draw on an interview with artificial intelligence researcher Ed Fredkin in this amazing 1980s BBC documentary where he states that eventually computers might become so intelligent as to overwhelm human cognitive capacities and quite literally keep humans as pets, a notion echoed in contemporary quasi-religious beliefs in a coming technological singularity:
Note the chiliastic overtones in the exposition of the film, clearly alluding to an idea of transcendence and salvation from violent human life through a more rational modus operandi of the intelligent machine. The sense of violence, chaos and existential threat of the late 1980s is well comparable to the turmoils of today. Both the ultimately failed cold war dream of building intelligent supercomputers and the more recent ideas of emergent intelligence arising from the distributed processors of the internet, as exemplified in the ‘singularity’ belief system, seem to be firmly rooted in a very western and judeo-christian teleology living on throughout the dislocations of technological modernity: the messiah, delivering us from human evil, has been digitized.
However, as both Hubert Dreyfus and, more recently, David Auerbach noted, computers are stupid. The digital messiah turns out to be too rigid for being in the world as richly and complex as we are. And, it seems, the machine’s ignorance stems from a lack of precisely these irrational, embodied and non-formalisable dimensions of our being that the promise of artificial intelligence purports to do away with.