JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Teresa Heffernan

March 3, 2024 by Sonja Johnston

Teresa Heffernan is Professor of English Language and Literature at Saint Mary's University, Halifax, NS. Her current research is on the science and fiction of robotics and AI. She is currently working on a new book, Where AI Meets Fiction.  She runs the website Social Robot Futures. Her fellowship research project is titled "Intelligence” in the Absence of Life. Teresa is our 2023-24 Visiting Public Humanities Faculty Fellow.

What are your main research interests?

I am interested in the ethical and existential questions that emerge from the entanglement of the science and fiction of robotics and artificial intelligence, from Alan Turing and Erewhon to Jeff Bezos and Star Trek. The problematic conflation of science and fiction in the cultural imaginary that drives the AI industry not only obscures the material impact of these technologies on society and the environment but shuts down the ethical potential of fiction. Claiming science fiction as science fact and rendering fiction literal, the AI industry strips fiction of its imaginative force—the future, the industry tells us, only has one direction and it is automated.  Some of the questions I have been asking: Why does the AI industry reference fiction as if it was on the verge of coming true even as it marginalizes the literary imagination in discussions of a technological future?  Why does it so often collapse animals (including humans) with machines? Why does it forgo skepticism, which is key to good scientific practice, in favour of prophesy and orphic language?  And how does AI, which collapses the organic with the synthetic and language with code, reshape knowledge? The goal of my research is to revive a productive tension between science and fiction, so that fiction is not reduced to tech propaganda and science is not reduced to "scientism," something that merely has the veneer of science.

What project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

John McCarthy first coined the term artificial intelligence in 1956 at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to explore “the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.” What was conjecture quickly became gospel for many in the field despite the fact that McCarthy himself later regretted coining the term. He wished he had named the field “computational intelligence.” Computation—a calculation involving numbers or quantities—would have better qualified the limited range of “intelligence” that the field in fact covers and would have better checked the almost automatic conflation of the concepts of the “human” and the “machine” that are so prevalent in discussions of AI. In one sense, this conflation discounts absence—all is readily apparent: the human is a machine and replicable, but what of “life" itself, which is precisely the thing that is absent in this conflation. In keeping with this year’s JHI theme of absence, I am working on a project about what it means to speak of human-like qualities, like creativity or intelligence or ethics, in the absence of life. If the AI industry has long marketed the idea that there is no difference between the human and the machine by appealing to overly literal readings of fictions in its mythmaking, this project reclaims fiction as fiction to challenge that claim.

How has your JHI Fellowship experience been so far?

Wonderful. In these days when the humanities, the centuries old study of human society, is being “disrupted” by a very different type of knowledge generated by algorithms, big data and machines that do not traffic in facts or evidence and that strip away context, culture, and history—it is inspiring to be working with other scholars who have a deep appreciation for what the humanities have to offer.  The push to “techify” everything elides the fact that “what humanists do comes from a different epistemological scale of a unit of knowledge,” as Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian, has noted. I look forward to every Thursday when I get to hear a seminar presentation from one of the fellows, followed by an edifying discussion…the questions and comments I had on my presentation really helped me further and refine my analysis.

Can you share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

Sydney Padua’s graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly)True History of the First Computer is brilliant. I also love Will Eaves’s novel Murmur, based on a fictional Alan Turing.

What is a fun fact about you?

According to one of my older sisters, as the seventh child in a family of eight, my mother wanted to name me Septima. Luckily my siblings protested.