News & Perspectives

Machines of Loving Grace

Machines of Loving Grace

Approaching the era of pervasive AI and IA
Perspective// Posted by: Celia Lesh / 12 Apr 2016
Machines of loving grace

While John Markoff’s Machines of Loving Grace is mainly a history and “Who’s Who” of robotic technology, it’s also an attempt to ponder the many challenges that this technology presents to humans: the Earth’s dominant thinking creatures, at least for now.

Markoff tells detailed stories of how these technologies evolved, and who exactly is behind them. Much of the book boils down to the distinction between artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligence augmentation (IA), and their clashing approaches. While AI works to displace or replace humans with machines, IA enhances and extends human capabilities through machines. Markoff stresses that the two camps must learn to communicate if they are going to get anywhere (well, with any grace).

Reading Markoff’s history prompts a variety of moral and ethical questions, which will likely be answered only in hindsight. A few examples:

  • When we delegate human tasks to robots and something goes awry, who bears the responsibility?
  • What will it take for decisions on implementing new technologies to orbit around green issues, rather than profitability and efficiency?
  • How will new robotic technologies differ when more women and persons of color are behind their creation?
  • Will people in conflict begin to see themselves as united in their personhood, in the face of the otherness of machines?
  • What kinds of knowledge (i.e., intuition, wisdom) are resistant to collection and categorization?

“This [book] is about us,” Markoff writes, “about humans and the kind of world we will create. It’s not about the machines.” Yes, Machines of Loving Grace is about us—but because it is about us it’s also inevitably about our machines - those that prolong life (e.g., the robots of Intuitive Surgical) and the that take it (the US Navy’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which will target and kill humans autonomously).

Machines of Loving Grace is also about the small, innocuous acts that compose our own human lives, and how these acts are changing and evolving with robotic technologies. They include ways in which we communicate, who we turn to with our questions, how we find respite, and differences in the ways we interrelate—with AIs, with IAs, and with each other. It’s a distinction we may not make in the near future.

Celia Lesh
Celia Lesh, artist and writer based in the Bay Area and New York.