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Histories of Artificial Intelligence: A Genealogy of Power


Rebecca Charbonneau is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and PhD candidate in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

She specializes in the history of aerospace and astronomy in the 20th century, focusing particularly on US-Soviet collaboration in radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence during the Cold War. Prior to her studies at Cambridge, she earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Oxford, followed by positions at NASA's Headquarters and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) archives, where she remains an affiliate.

Her research often leads her to work closely with scientists, conducting oral history projects and assisting with the preservation of historical materials. Most of this work has taken place at NRAO, but she also has working relationships with Russia's AstroSpace Centre and Berkeley's SETI Research Center/Breakthrough Listen. Her work with the scientific community has led her to hold several committee positions in scientific organizations, such as the AAS Historical Astronomy Division and the IAU Historical Radio Astronomy Working Group.

Passionate about public outreach, Rebecca volunteers as a NASA Solar System Ambassador, occasionally guest speaks on BBC 5's Naked Scientists, and publishes articles on her research.

For more, visit her student page.

Research: Defining Intelligence and Communication During the Cold War

The core of my research concerns the development of radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) during the Cold War, focusing on networks of communication between scientists in the United States and Soviet Union. In doing so, I analyze the themes of intelligence and communication by exploring the complexities of international scientific collaboration during the Cold War period, as well as by highlighting the uncomfortable relationship between scientific internationalism and the military during the Cold War.

As it pertains to this seminar, my research has three major connections to the history of AI:

  • Theories of intelligence: Much of the scientific discussion surrounding the development of SETI in the 1960s concerned defining 'intelligence', and how to identify intelligence in the unknown 'other'. This prompted the scientists to explore studies of animal minds, and sometimes led to an overlap with eugenicist and progressive social evolutionist theories on intelligence and civilization.
  • AI ties to the Space Race: AI pioneer Marvin Minsky attended a SETI conference in 1971, where he proposed the use of AI (specifically, natural language processing) to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI scientists Carl Sagan and I.S. Shklovskii, in their 1966 book Intelligent Life in the Universe, emphasized the potential of AI in interstellar communications. The term AI was coined in 1956, one year prior to the start of the Space Race, and so the concept caught fire amongst those who imagined possible futures in space – ergo, the histories of SETI and AI often involved the same groups of people.
  • Intelligence gathering: Twentieth century radio astronomers and SETI scientists so perfected the art of detecting artificial signals that they caught the attention of the intelligence community – in particular, the branch of intelligence most concerned with the detection and analysis of intelligent radio signals, known as 'signals intelligence'. Both SETI scientists and intelligence agencies capitalized on AI tools and techniques to enhance their methods, resulting in some coordination and collaboration between the communities.

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