“AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization,” the controversial entrepreneur and currently second richest person on the planet, Elon Musk, said 2017. Two years later, Jeff Bezos, no less controversial than Musk but even richer, struck a more optimistic tone, claiming that we are “[…] at the beginning of a golden age of AI. Recent advancements have already led to invention that previously lived in the realm of science fiction — and we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.”
It is interesting that Bezos, known to be a lifelong fan of the genre, references science fiction in his rather positive take on the opportunities of artificial intelligence technologies, given that the crazy or evil AI has long been a staple of fantastic genres and indeed popular culture: Just think of HAL in 2001, the Terminator in the eponymous franchise, or the Matrix films, to name but a few.
In the course of this seminar, we will attempt to understand the cultural roots of current popular notions of AI, how AI is portrayed in contemporary anglophone literature, and how fictional representations and real world implementations of AI intersect - or don't, for that matter. In order to do so, we will read two recent novels with embodied AI protagonists: Ian McEwan's 2019 Machines like me and Kazuo Ishiguro's 2021 Klara and the sun. We will also look at short stories and excerpts from other literary texts, as well as a number of non-literary texts, so expect a fairly heavy reading load.
The seminar is scheduled to be conducted in the form of weekly online-sessions supported by a moodle course. Please not, however, that all information regarding the classroom situation is preliminary and subject to change due to policies concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.