SSHRC Projects

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Project, 2021-2024

Title: AI Everywhere:  The Mythical and Religious Roots of Algorithmic Faith

Project lead: Teresa Heffernan, Professor, English Department, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Canada

While Google head Sundar Pichai plans to have “AI everywhere” and an “AI-first world,” this SSHRC-funded interdisciplinary project challenges some of the founding assumptions driving the industry’s push for the omnipresence of artificial intelligence. The project will consider the proposition that techno-utopianism, the view that AI is the answer to all problems, is deeply rooted in religion and myth, and that the concomitant faith in algorithms effaces the differences between the organic and synthetic, and language and code. The first part of the project involves identifying religious and mythical references in the writings of the founders of AI, such as Alan Turing and Norbert Wiener, and considering the significance of such findings in the history of the development of AI concepts and debates. The second part, as institutes are being established to address the pressing concerns of AI and society, is to call for a paradigm shift that reframes the relationship between code-based AI/machine language and language-based humanities. Some activities associated with these objectives include: researching web-based and physical archives of the “fathers of AI” and publishing relevant findings; hosting an interdisciplinary scholarly workshop that will result in an edited book; hosting an AI/robotics film series and panel at the Halifax Public Library; and offering an upper level seminar course connected to the workshop. These activities will be conducted with the assistance of undergraduate and graduate level students.

SSHRC Project, 2013-2019

Title: “Where Science Meets Fiction: Social Robots and the Ethical Imagination”

Project lead: Teresa Heffernan, Professor, English Department, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Canada

This project explored the ethical and existential questions that emerge from the entanglement of the science and the fiction of robotics/AI. It considered why science uses fiction even as it marginalizes the literary imagination in discussions of a technological future, why the animal is so often problematically collapsed with the machine, and how the categories and narratives about robots and animals differently produce the human. The fieldwork component of the study entailed meeting designers of robotics/AI to trace where fictional models come into play in their work, why scientists invoke them, and where fictional narratives and scientific practices intersect, differ, breakdown, and conflict. The project culminated in a two-day public workshop, titled Cyborg Futures: Animal Life and Social Robots. A summary of the workshop is available here, as are videos of the talks given by Louis Chude-Sokei, Despina Kakoudaki, Lucy Suchman, Kathleen Richardson, Illah R. Nourbakhsh, Vikram Chandra, and John Long. The proceedings of the workshop resulted in the publication of Cyborg Futures: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, edited by Teresa Heffernan (Palgrave 2019).

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