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Histories of Artificial Intelligence: A Genealogy of Power


Surrogate Humanity

Wednesday 17 February 2021, 15:00–17:00 GMT

Co-facilitated by: Dr Sarah Dillon (University of Cambridge)

Discussant: Jenny Carla Moran (University of Cambridge)


This month, in anticipation of our 2021 Summer School, we will read two excerpts from Atanasoski and Vora's celebrated 2019 book Surrogate Humanity. The book traces the ways in which robots, artificial intelligence, and other technologies serve as surrogates for human workers within a labor system entrenched in racial capitalism and patriarchy. Analyzing myriad technologies, from sex robots and military drones to sharing-economy platforms, Atanasoski and Vora show how liberal structures of antiblackness, settler colonialism, and patriarchy are fundamental to human-machine interactions, as well as the very definition of the human. While these new technologies and engineering projects promise a revolutionary new future, they replicate and reinforce racialized and gendered ideas about devalued work, exploitation, dispossession, and capitalist accumulation. Yet, even as engineers design robots to be more perfect versions of the human – more rational killers, more efficient workers, and tireless companions – the potential exists to develop alternative modes of engineering and technological development in ways that refuse the racial and colonial logics that maintain social hierarchies and inequality.

We read this text alongside two foundational texts from the histories of AI and robotics: Licklider's 1960 creed 'Man-Computer Symbiosis' and Capek's R.U.R., which introduced the word 'robot' to the English language.

Assigned readings

Event summary

The session began with a screening of Kibwe Tavares' 2011 short film Robots of Brixton, winner of the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award. Addressing Robots of BrixtonR.U.R., and Licklider's essay from our readings, Dr Dillon opened the discussion by reflecting upon the comparative surrogate roles of robots in the film and the play, the historical context of R.U.R., prospects of man-computer symbiosis, and the use of fictional texts in understanding imaginaries. Dr Dillon also posed questions for discussion of Surrogate Humanity, covering the definition of surrogate humanity effect, the placing of machines in relation to enslaved peoples, the types of imaginaries considered in the text and how these intersect, the efficacy of critique, and the global applicability of technoliberalism's racial grammar.

Next, Jenny Carla Moran explored Surrogate Humanity, highlighting the contributions of the text with regard to making workers visible through refusals of technoliberalism and its contribution to a Black feminist tradition of displacing the 'human' as an ontology, which is extended to the reproduction of 'humanness' in robotics. Moran also offered the following provocations for discussion:

  1. Questioning the cognitive dissonance between imaginations of white loss and prospects of white gain in transhumanist perspectives.
  2. The potential problems that may arise from applying the lens of the Other to analyse an object.

The group continued these discussions and raised further provocations in collaboration with Prof. Vora through Q&A.

Works cited (in the chat)


  • Bardzell, Shaowen. 'Utopias of Participation: Feminism, Design, and the Futures'ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 25, no. 1 (24 February 2018): 1–24.
  • Britton, Loren, and Helen Pritchard. 'For CS'. IX Interactions, 7 July 2020.
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Reprint. Penguin Social Sciences. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
  • Frumer, Yulia. 'The Short, Strange Life of the First Friendly Robot'IEEE Spectrum, 21 May 2020.
  • Licklider, J. C. R., and Robert W. Taylor. 'The Computer as a Communication Device'. Science and Technology 76 (1968): 21–31.
  • Wilson, Elizabeth A. Affect and Artificial Intelligence. In Vivo: The Cultural Mediations of Biomedical Science. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.

Literary representations

Intersections of race and technology


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