I just finished my first Robotic Intimacies class of the term, and I’m excited by what this new semester has in store. One of the insights that came out in discussion with a current grad student who had taken the class last term, the first time I taught it, is that the problematics that had to be brought to the surface last semester, were the first things that students had in mind this year. We thought perhaps this had to do with the growing societal prominence of robotic technologies, artificial intelligence, bionics, wearable technology, and posthuman subjectivities broadly. While before it was an oncoming horizon, with landscape that you could make out if you were looking for it, 8 months later we are just that much closer, and the details are more present, more urgent.
Articles on the 4th industrial revolution, weaponized drones, bionic appendages, mind-controlled technology, teledildonics, named AIs with distinctive skill sets and personalities have been on the rise. In Flesh and Machines (2002), roboticist Rodney Brooks talks about how there is a massive gulf between the the robotic dreams of science fiction and the actual machines of today, but also talks about how, year by year, we are closing that distance. He posits that “in just twenty years [from 2002] the boundary between fantasy and reality will be rent asunder” and, from a 2016 standpoint, I have to think his timeline is more-or-less accurate. The interesting thing is teaching a course on a topic that’s societal prominence is in a process of rapid becoming. I’m coming to see the course as also a chronicle of the changes that are underway, one that has one foot in the present and the other in a future that is fast approaching—and palpably closer each term.