Anxiety about non-human intelligent machines is a longstanding theme of cultural production and consumption. Examples range from tales of golems and Frankenstein’s monster to the evil overlord scenarios of contemporary film and television franchises: Star Trek, the Alien series, and the Terminator sequence, as well as Her, Black Mirror, Blade Runner, Ex Machina, and many other less mainstream cultural artifacts.
The source of this anxiety is clear. Non-human conscious entities may turn out to be superior to any biological form of life, allowing a stride across human ambition in a moment dubbed “the Singularity” by AI insiders. This is the turning point when non-human entities advance and reproduce in a manner that surpasses and subjugates biological forms of intelligent life. Although today’s artificial intelligences fall notably short of this level of sophistication, Mark Kingwell argues that we are already more than human in important ways, and likely to become more so as time goes on. In Singular Creatures Kingwell plumbs the depths of cultural and political meaning in the apparent transition to posthuman life. Our immersion in technology, now comprehensive to the point of invisibility, has altered forever what it means to be alive. The politics of posthumanism flow directly from our own situation, at once dependent on technology and afraid of its effects on current and future experiences.
More than a century after playwright Karel Čapek coined the word robot – rooted in the Czech robota, meaning “servitude” or “drudgery” – in his 1920 allegory about the alienation of forced labour leading to a violent workers’ revolt, Čapek’s central question continues to haunt us. Can humans and their own creations co-exist in a new cyberflesh world, or is a struggle for superiority inevitable? Singular Creatures is an attempt at sketching the field before any deadly battle is joined.
About the author
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author of eleven books of political and cultural theory, including most recently, Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City (2008) and Opening Gambits: Essays on Art and Philosophy (2008). He is the recipient of the Spitz Prize in political theory, National Magazine Awards for both essays and columns, and in 2000 was awarded an honorary DFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design for contributions to theory and criticism.
Patrick Turmel is an assistant professor of philosophy at Université Laval. His main research interests are in moral and political philosophy. He has published articles in ethics and on issues pertaining to cities and justice. He is also co-editor of Penser les institutions (Presses de l’Université Laval).
“Covering topics ranging from John Carpenter’s They Live to Trump and the storming of the Capitol, Kingwell makes an original argument about the nature of the continuum between humans and machines, grounding his inquiry and discussion in philosophy and humanism.” Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human
“Singular Creatures is a guide to technological development, the cultural fantasies that surround it, and the philosophical questions that emerge. Kingwell does an excellent job of teasing out technical questions and elaborating what their consequences will be. In the case of AI, this is particularly difficult.” Stephen Marche, author of The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future