On Being Human at the Crossroads of Robotics and Hollywood

Donna Haraway has argued that the rethinking of human identity provoked by new technological advances has invited a simultaneous reconsideration of human animal relations. The question of where the human ends and the robot begins, inevitable with emergence of autonomous AI and
the merging of human and machine both echoes and revisits the question of where the animal ends and the human begins, a long-standing question that is further complicated by the more recent mixing of human and animal genes. As robots are proliferating, the question of their rights is being debated (i.e., the 2007 Korean Robot Ethics Charter); so too as animal species are disappearing, the question of animal rights has entered the mainstream (i.e., the 2008 decision by the Spanish parliament to extend some human rights to great apes). Literature and film are not only the places where the ethics of new developments in science get played out, these genres actively shape and mold scientific invention. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of artificial intelligence, where designers of robots take their cue from a pantheon of “humanized” machines that have populated film. Focusing on the ways in which robots are represented in contemporary film, in particular Spielberg’s AI, and on the science of emotional AI, this paper considers some of pressing implications of animal and robot rights discourse and what it means to be human at the crossroads of robotics and Hollywood.


Teresa Heffernan is an Associate Professor of English at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is the author of Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth-Century Novel (University of Toronto Press, 2008), and she is currently finishing a book entitled Across the East/West Divide: Feminism, Orientalism, and Women’s Travel Narratives. Her articles have appeared in journals such as Eighteenth-Century Studies, Twentieth Century Literature, Studies in the Novel, Arab Journal in the Humanities, and Canadian Literature. She has edited special issues of Cultural Studies (“Revisiting the Subaltern in the New Empire” with Jill Didur) and Cultural Critique (“Critical Post Humanism” with Jill Didur and Bart Simon). She is also co-editor, with Reina Lewis, of “Cultures in Dialogue,” a multi-volume project that brings back into circulation travel works by Ottoman, British, and American writers.