AI & Culture: Bodies & Cyborgs

Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Prof. Molly Wright Steenson, Fall 2018

There’s a lot of talk about AI these days. It’s all over pop culture, whether in tv, film, books, sci-fi, music, games, and internet memes. Yet the term “artificial intelligence” has been in use since 1955 and “robot” since 1920. What might we learn from looking at the pop culture of AI where it intersects with bodies and cyborgs? In this class, we’ll do survey the pop culture of AI, read texts and articles to help us theorize it, bring in AI & robotics experts to ground our knowledge, and generate our own creative responses. If we do it right, this class will be a fun but insightful exploration into AI, robotics, and cyborgs. This class is small enough for us to be adaptive to your interests, so the readings may shift accordingly (I will communicate to you via email if that’s the case.)

Readings are directly linked online or are on Box:

we’re charging our battery / and we are full of energy / we are the robots (kraftwerk)

Week 1, 8/27: Intros and clichés

Monday: Introductions

Wednesday: Dial a cliché: clichés in pop culture about robotics and AI.

  • Please read: Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley”) originally published in 1970 in Energy. [Box]
  • Your mission: Bring in 3 examples of clichés about robots, cyborgs & AI. Please bring a printout if it’s visual (film, art, music). We’ll pin them up, walk through them, and talk about what we see—and what is missing.

Week 2, 9/3: Robots, 1920 and now

(Monday: no class. Happy Labor Day!)

In advance of class (Tuesday 7 pm), your mission:

What does “uncanniness” (from the Masahiro Mori article) teach us about the proximity and distance of robots to ourselves? What can we learn from the distance and proximity between robots (like Marius and Sulla) and people (like Domin and Helena) in R.U.R.? And how is this similar or distant from today—is there an example that you might want to bring into your account (whether from last week’s collection of tropes and clichés, or from something else)?

Please be sure to email me [steenson at cmu dot edu] your Medium post. Thank you!


Three robots in the play Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1922
From a United States WPA production of RUR in 1939
The clone characters that Tatiana Masley plays (via BBC America)

Week 3, 9/10: Cyborgs and Gender


  • Donna Haraway, “Cyborg Manifesto” (TBD one additional article from more recent work) [Box]
  • Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture”

Wednesday: Watch Her and Ex Machina on your own

Your mission: What is a cyborg and what is the concern of a cyborg—especially from a perspective of interest to you? In our conversation about RUR, there were many different concerns and forces at play. How might Haraway’s notion of a cyborg open this up further?

Week 4, 9/17: Turing Tests, AI & Consciousness

Your mission… is open. Take into account the themes and readings for our class so far and reflect critically at Her and Ex Machina.

  • Monday: Discussion of Her and Ex Machina
  • Wednesday: [Highly recommended—this is a late addition]: Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind (59): 433–460. [Box]. This is the origin of the Turing Test.

Here’s Nick Bostrom’s notion of superintelligence: on what happens when computers get smarter than us.

[THIS WILL BE MOVED. Wednesday: visit to NREC (National Robotics Engineering Center) in Lawrenceville & meeting with Dr. Herman Herman, Director of NREC]

Dank Learning: Stanford researchers used a neural net to spin up Internet memes. You can find the technical paper here.

Week 5, 9/24: Memory and Robocop

  • To watch: Robocop in advance of class
  • Monday: We will welcome Professor Mark Vareschi, Associate Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison on Robocop, cyborgs, and memory.
  • Wednesday: Further discussion of Robocop and memory

Week 6, 10/1: Robots and Humans

  • To read:
  • Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, chapter 1, “Toward Embodied Virtuality.” Hayles’s piece is challenging but important, and your mission this week will address her chapter.
  • James Auger, “Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach” [Box] Speculative design is a way to speculate about possible futures.
  • In class on 10/1: Dr. Madeline Gannon, robot whisperer, researcher, CMU PhD in architecture, principal of ATONATON.
  • Your mission: Last week, we were talking about the nature of computer memory and human memory. This week, we are reading Katherine Hayles and James Auger. The reason for these pieces is for us to examine: How is information (and by extension, memory) embodied? Hayles writes “…for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium, whether that medium is the page from the Bell Laboratories Journal on which Shannon’s equations are printed, the computer-generated topological maps used by the Human Genome Project, or the cathode ray tube on which virtual worlds are imaged.” (Hayles, 1999:13). Your mission: taking at least two examples from Hayles, and one from our discussions so far in class—or your own interest—how is information embodied?
  • 10/4, 6–8 pm (optional): Opening, Miller Institute of Contemporary Art: Paradox: The Body in the Age of AI

Week 7, 10/8: “Paradox: The Body in the Age of AI”

  • Monday: special gallery tour of Paradox: The Body in the Age of AI & curator talk with Elizabeth Chodos
  • Wednesday: return to Miller for class session and individual curation. What choices will you share?

Week 8: Post and share final creative project

0000001 0000001: binary solo!

Objectives, policies, grading


  • Explore pop culture representation of AI as a means of challenging myths
  • Expand your understanding about AI and robotics
  • Develop critical thinking and writing skills through weekly written responses
  • Explore creative approaches to AI and robotics to share


Are located here:


  • Weekly essays in Medium as reading responses, 250–500 words: 35% (5% per post)
  • Curation exercise, 10%
  • Creative final project: 30%
  • Participation: 15%
  • Discussion leadership: 10%

Medium posts: 7 over the course of the class

Complete the readings or watch the films (or other material) in time for each class, and respond to each prompt with a 250–500-word (maximum equivalent of two single-spaced pages) response that you will publish on Medium. Think of it as a sketchbook in words, a way of bookmarking your interests and ideas in writing. You can and should be creative in your Medium posts. Incorporate images and video into them. Have fun with them! Your reflections on the prompt will take the course material into consideration. Complete your response no later than 7 pm Sunday night before class unless specified otherwise.

To start a Medium account, click the Getting Started button in the upper-right hand corner of After you’ve started an account, you can start a new story by clicking your avatar or image of yourself in the upper-right hand corner, then choosing Start a New Story. This will bring you to a blank page where you can immediately start writing. Be sure to include images or video (see above and below).

Medium’s help page is quite useful for getting started on Medium. You may want to refer to it as you get started with your posts. You’ll notice ways to write and comment (publicly and privately). To start a new “story” (post),

Medium is particularly good for incorporating images and embedding video. This page offers links to “stock images that don’t suck.” I love this: places to find royalty free images for free. It’s a little easier than going through Flickr, looking for Creative Commons images that allow for the licensing. If you are grabbing images off the Internet, you need to cite your images.You might also find license-free or Creative Commons images.

Leading discussion & conversation: 10%

Wednesday class sessions (or Monday if need be) will be led by teams of 2–3 discussion leaders. You will frame the class: you’ll come up with your own creative approaches and provocative questions and add your own examples, applications, and artifacts to the conversation, and publish them on a Medium post. For classes that have an external guest, you will help to host their visit.

Discussion leaders will meet with Molly in advance of class. As you put together your approach for the session, start with an end in mind. Where would you like to end up and what kind of questions will get you there? Good questions tend to bring in the how and the why, and are more effective than making a statement and asking the class what you think. You might consider activities or debates you might like to do. You may want to turn a discussion on its head, or play devil’s advocate, or choose a contrary position. At the end of the class, you’ll conclude and summarize the discussion to see us out.

Curatorial project: 10%

When we attend the Paradox show at the Miller Gallery, you’ll spend some time considering your own curation: what pieces would you choose and what would you add to them? You’ll write this up on Medium and we’ll all share in class.

Creative project: 30%

Taking everything we’ve done and the things that you’re most interested and curious about, you will put together a final creative project. You could write, make a podcast, do a video, code a demo, build a robot, make a game, develop a simulation, bring us into your own uncanny valley… it’s up to you. This project is due the last week of class and we will celebrate your work then. You’ll give Molly a proposal for what you’re considering by 9/24 (a paragraph in email will do).

Participation: 15%

I expect you to complete the readings, bring in homework, take part in discussion in small and large groups, arrive on time, and not miss class.

Academic integrity

The point of this class is to develop and situate your own ideas in a broader discourse — and in order to do that properly, you need to cite your work. No form of academic dishonesty will be tolerated. When you use words, images, videos, or even ideas and thoughts that are not yours and that you do not credit or properly cite, you are guilty of plagiarism. It is better to ask for more time on a deadline than to plagiarize. If you have any questions, ask.

Do not cut and paste from other sources, even into your own notes, without keeping some system that tells you exactly where your work came from. Get in the habit now of taking good notes. We will discuss plagiarism and steps to avoid it, and we will be using Turnitin, a web-based plagiarism detection program, for the papers that you hand in.

Attendance policy

Absences of any kind are strongly discouraged as your learning and work will be adversely affected by the information and activities you miss. Be punctual, arriving just before the class start time so we can begin sessions promptly, and stay for the duration of each class. If you are five minutes late or leave class early you will be marked as absent. Two absences may cause your final grade to drop a letter. Three absences may earn you a failing grade for the course. Please schedule doctor’s appointments, interviews, etc. for times other than class sessions. In the event that you encounter a health or life issue that requires you to miss class (such as a physician providing you with instructions that necessitate your quarantine) please notify me as soon as possible to provide an idea of the severity of your illness/issue and the length of time needed for recovery. Keep in mind, you are responsible for information you miss through absences or lateness. (Note: If your illness/issue requires recovery time that exceeds the absence policy for a passing grade, a leave of absence may need to be considered. If this becomes the case consultation with university resources on how best to support you may be necessary.)

Please bring academic timing conflicts to my attention as soon as possible and do not make travel plans before verifying the date of the event with me.

Take care of yourself

Remember that we — your professors and your classmates alike — want you to succeed and thrive. Stress is real. Emotions are real. Depression is real.

Please take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle this semester by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep and taking some time to relax. This will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. All of us benefit from support during times of struggle. You are not alone. There are many helpful resources available on campus and an important part of the college experience is learning how to ask for help. Asking for support sooner rather than later is often helpful. If you or anyone you know experiences any academic stress, difficult life events, or feelings like anxiety or depression, we strongly encourage you to seek support. Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is here to help: call 412–268–2922 and visit their website at Consider reaching out to a friend, faculty or family member you trust for help getting connected to the support that can help.

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