Recent cultural metaphors for artificial intelligence (AI) are often quite threatening. Think of HAL 9000, in 2001: A Space Odyssey—a disembodied machine that turns on its “master.” Less fatal but more eerie AI is Samantha in the movie Her. She’s an empathetic, sensitive and sultry-voiced girlfriend without a body—until she surprises with thousands of other boyfriends. Or perhaps AI blends the two, as an unholy love child of Hal and Samantha brought to “life” as the humanoid robot Ava in Ex Machina. Ava kills her creator to flee toward an uncertain freedom.
These images are a big departure from their benevolent precursors of more than half a century ago. In 1967, poet Richard Brautigan imagined gleefully optimistic visions of the impact that the artificially intelligent products California’s emerging computer industry would make on the world.
This article explores the impact of these and other metaphors on how we conceptualize AI today; and argues that, rather than becoming convinced by one or another metaphorical perspective, we must understand the metaphorical foundations of discourse around AI to imagine humanity and its relationship to technology in radically new ways.