Part II: Facing AI ethics

Last week I promised a Part II on Faces and the Digital based on an interesting podcast: The Digital Human: Visage, but this has morphed into thinking about AI, and the predictions of mass production of smart robots.

So as a wrap-up of a series of 10 blogs I present my subjective view of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey – the 1968 cult SF film based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke.

I first saw this film when I was 18 yrs old in a student fresher’s week. I was attempting a BSc degree in geology that first year with subjects in math and computer science. 2001 was an old film but still had a SF hype about it and I was excited to see the future. Two and a half hours later in a stuffy lecture hall with a hundred plus other students, I hated the film. It was claustrophobic. It was tediously long. It presented a boring, depressing, incomprehensible, cacophonous, lonely, and sterile world . There was nothing wild or natural about the film – no meaningful communication between humans. HAL 9000 the resident computer was a serial killer of astronauts. The main protagonists, both hairy fake chimps and deadpan Dave, were monosyllabic. There was no outside only indoors. An infinite ‘Russian doll’ universe of space suits, space ships, and space stations. And what really bugged my 18 yr old self was that women were either absent or marginalized into serving beverages and shuffling along in anti-gravity slippers, wearing silly behive headwear, collecting weightless pens and returning them to sleeping males. Briefly three Russian female doctors turned up, but they were also inconsequential. There again this was the 1980s and all media was empty of females doing anything remotely interesting. And the ending with a big space baby what was that about? At last it was over and everyone could escape the room.

Fast forward to 2017, and we have the vision of one man to populate the Earth with robots from “Hiroshi Ishiguro…her ‘father’ and the bad boy of Japanese robotics”. Erica is her name.

Or we have Sophia, a robot based on the face of Audrey Hepburn, recently presented with citizenship rights by Saudi Arabia.

Back to 2001. A couple of weeks ago, as part of the syllabus for an American Film course, I had to watch (with some trepidation) 2001 Space Odyssey, again. I thought, this time around, I should try not to be so negative and to find more meaning and engagement with the film.

During class discussion the lecturer pointed out the difficulties of watching this movie with a fidgeting modern audience – did I mention that the film is slooow? I still failed to get any meaning from it. In class discussion the lecturer suggested that one of the students who had really hated the film probably got the most out of it. This was my ‘aha moment’ that came a couple of days later – so I didn’t have to like the film! Also the film could be read as presenting Dave’s point of view as typical of a certain kind of male point of view. And apparently, Kubrick meant the film ending to be optimistic

What I get from all this is that the film directly presents the sterile world that Dave experiences. And if he didn’t realize what he’s missing then we might. It’s a kind of canary in the Anthropocene coal mine.

I’m ending my 10 blogs by saying that a vision of how AI is to be developed can’t be left to a random few who have by chance amassed the biggest pile of financial resources. Kubrick’s film is optimistic if people heed what it has to say about losing the balance between the natural world and one digitally engineered. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a world where humans have got it desperately wrong. A world where a large part of the human population has been ignored.


The Digital Human: Visage (Series 13); BBC Podcast:

Erica: Man Made:


Mary Beard, Women & Power (Liveright, 2017).