Dr. Kevin LaGrandeur is Professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), where he specializes in technology and culture. He is also a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, an international think tank, and a co-founder of the NY Posthuman Research Group. Dr. LaGrandeur has written many articles and conference presentations on digital culture; on Artificial Intelligence and ethics; and on literature and science. His publications have appeared in journals such as Computers & Texts, Computers and the Humanities, and Science Fiction Studies; in books such as Beyond Artificial Intelligence: The Disappearing Human-Machine Divide (Springer, 2014), which contains his essay, ‘Emotion, Artificial Intelligence, and Ethics,’ The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman (Cambridge University Press, 2017), and AI Narratives (Oxford University Press, 2020). He has also published on Artificial Intelligence, society, and ethics in popular publications such as USA Today and United Press International (UPI). His book Artificial Slaves (Routledge, 2013), about the premodern cultural history of Artificial Intelligence and its foreshadowing of today’s technology, was awarded a 2014 Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies Prize. In April, 2017, his latest book, co-edited with James Hughes, was published. About the future of AI’s displacement of human workers and how to meet this challenge, it is titled Surviving the Machine Age: Intelligent Technology and the Transformation of Human Work. Among his current projects, he and his colleague John Misak are developing an a Virtual Reality game to help students understand Shakespeare and his world. He is also a Co-Founder and Co-Director of the New York Posthuman Research Group.
My presentation will show how Renaissance stories of the golem of Prague, of Paracelsus’s homunculus, and of a talking brass head built by a natural philosopher in Robert Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay show the fears and hopes embedded in that culture’s reactions to human invention—as well as an ambivalence to the idea of slavery, for intelligent objects are almost uniformly proxies for indentured servants. Renaissance tales of the golem spring from Eastern Europe, especially Prague, and depict the creationof an artificial humanoid to help protect the Jewish citizenry from harm. The golem is chiefly a product of Cabalistic magic, which is precisely this sort of secretive and formulaic magic that contemporaneously underpins claims by scientists of the period, such as Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa, to have made tiny humans (homunculi) in flasks. The written claims of these scientists affect and reflect fiction of the period, such as Greene’s play about Bacon, whose transgressive experimentation with a talking, metal humanoid head depicts the dangers of new ideas. These tales carry important warnings for the future—our time. For the tales examined in this presentation about artificial servants that predate the modern era signal ambivalence about our innate technological abilities—an ambivalence that anticipates today’s concerns about AI. These artificial servants’ promises of vastly increased power over our own natural limits are countervailed by fearsabout being overwhelmed by our own ingenuity.