About James Vanié

James is a writer and design strategist. Tweets at @jamesvanie.

Infinite Machines: 3 — Turking Interfaces

At its peak, the 18th century Mechanical Turk toured the world; leaving audiences in awe at its seemingly advanced ability to beat opponents in chess. It only became publicly known after decades the Turk had a human chess master below who would manipulate the machine to make moves on their behalf. Over two centuries later in 2017, Google’s AlphaGo beat the world’s best Go player with no human intervention. In this case, the core technology evolved from human to machine, but personas were constructed along the way to disguise human labor behind the interface.

Beyond entertainment, this type of persona construction extends to humans used for service labor. As trains became commercialized in the 1860’s, black porters were known as George’s amongst passengers. This name comes from George Pullman, manufacturer of the Pullman Sleeper car. The George, similar to the Turk, functioned as a mask to human identities. Though George’s (as an interface) represented a deeper charade of power relationships.

Amazon adopted the Mechanical Turk name for one of their platforms, and it has since grown to be the world’s largest online workforce, comprising roughly 500,000 contract-based employees around the world. These ‘turkers’ help researchers and tech companies bring structure to unstructured data and train AI; with activities ranging from spotting fake news to filling out surveys. While it’s known that humans are behind the interface, they’re represented only as a string of letters and numbers to requestors.

In Finland, the Criminal Sanctions Agency is partnering with Vainu, an enterprise SaaS tech company, to employ prisoners as ‘turkers’ to validate data that will help organizations arrive at more comprehensive business decisions. While the company boasts the prisoners are gaining transferable skills, the dissonance between the worlds of the end user and prisoner blur the lines of where the human labor ends and the machine begins.

Infinite Machines: 2 – Plasticized Erotica

Today, the sexbot industry gives men the inverse of what Barbie gives girls: a sense of control over the opposite sex.

Upgrade her to suit your needs. Mostly docile. Never late. She’s yours to keep.

This industry isn’t particularly anti-woman, but does reveal an enthusiasm for male freedom through decreased interdependence from the emotional needs of women.

This begs the question: how does the value of synthetic life influence social norms toward natural life? Turns out, it’s complicated.

  • Sexbots aren’t sentient, therefore have no dignity to uphold.
  • They give power, but can’t be genuinely influenced.
  • Pornographic pleasures, but no intimacy.
  • Control, but no consent.

I could continue, but when examining what’s lost in this emergent future, it seems male users will be inevitably forced to reconcile their desires with real women, legal systems, and the broader public. Individuals are escalating concerns and regulation, and rightfully so. The female body has been objectified and stripped of sexual freedom across nearly every aspect of humanity. In an era where ‘consent’ is still ambiguous from the streets to the sheets, should we further empower men who choose not to practice it?

Whether sexbots could be used for radical autonomy is an interesting question. VR is being used to treat PTSD, anxiety, and facilitate sex therapy. Consider for a moment if sexbots took a similar path.

  • Less rape in prisons.
  • Interactive consent lessons in classrooms.
  • Men on campuses knowing how to ask for what they want at the end of the night.
  • In homes, sexbots might reduce sexual tension that’s often tangled with the economic aspects of marriages.

In the near future, women will continually be expected, unfortunately, to owe their bodies to men. But perhaps with the right intervention, sexbots can absorb ignorant and toxic mistakes; helping re-distribute power to design a world of social equality between sexes.

Infinite Machines: 1 – An Introduction

Like the universe, technology, an extension of the self, is expanding fast.

The infinite machine is the idea that we’re becoming machine-like through the use of human-like machines. It is a phenomenon at the intersection of automation, labor, gratification, and human desire.

In this expansion of technology, I argue that we compromise aspects of our humanity in ways that are hard to see for some, and harder to associate meaning to for others. So the further we ‘progress’, the less we intrinsically understand why we choose to expand.

AI is still evolving (broadly completing narrow tasks) and has done a decent job mimicking human attributes: neural computation, analytical decision-making, and natural language processing to name a few. But despite the rudimentary functionality of AI today, the idea of an AI singularity sparks both fear and allure amongst the world’s top physicists and inventors.

This series explores contending identity attributes between the computer science of AI and spirit of humanity, through a few critical lenses:

  1. Growing emotional and psychological dissonance of laborers involved in the delivery of AI technologies.
  2. Unrealized tension that laborers experience in the process, which range from microaggressions to economic exploitation.
  3. Evolving perceptions of power and free will as AI technologies become more anthropomorphic.

A recurring challenge across these areas, which I’ll examine, is detangling the inherent value from its value proposition: Let’s connect you to the world in ways that you never imagined. For example, last week, I booked a taxi, confirmed a tinder date, and discovered a new music genre – all in three minutes. As the third minute passed, I realized I hadn’t pushed any buttons in the elevator which I was standing in.

I was doing ‘things,’ but going nowhere. This, of course, is a metaphor for the collective human identity.