Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 138: Artificial Intelligence, Sexbots and Patipolitics — with Isabel Millar

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Am Johal, Isabel Millar


Kathy Feng  00:02
Hello listeners! I’m Kathy Feng with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by philosopher, cultural theorist, and author of The Psychoanalysis of Artificial Intelligence, Dr. Isabel Millar. Am and Isabel speak about the psychoanalytical questions of AI and subjectivity. Isabel explores Jacques Lacan’s influence upon her work, and the importance of considering sexuality and the body in conversations about AI. Enjoy the episode!


Am Johal  0:40
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week. We have a special guest, Dr. Isabel Millar is with us from the UK, I believe, although she may be elsewhere, we'll find out shortly. But let's, let's begin. I'm going to ask Isabel, if you could introduce yourself a little bit.

Isabel Millar  0:59
Hi, it's really nice to be with you today. Well, I'm a philosopher and sort of cultural theorist or psychoanalytic theorist from London. I've just written my first book, The Psychoanalysis of AI, which I reckon we'll be talking a bit about today. And yes, I sort of work on the intersection of philosophy, critical theory, psychoanalytic theory, film, technology, artificial intelligence, and on all those sexy things like that. [laughs]

Am Johal  1:28
Yeah, I'm wondering, as well, we can maybe begin with your book that's been out for I think, maybe about a year now, The Psychoanalysis of Artificial Intelligence with Palgrave’s Lacan series. Wondering if we can start with you. Where did the project begin? For you? I know it came out of a dissertation, but how did you come to the idea of working on this set of problems or questions? 

Isabel Millar  1:54
When I began my doctoral research, I sort of started off from a kind of more bio-political background. So I was reading a lot of Foucault and Agamben. And I was very interested in questions of technology and subjectivity. And from a philosophical background, I started the journey towards talking and thinking about something to do with what was becoming of subjectivity in the new sort of configurations — that we were sort of facing. And reading a lot of kind of post-human literature that was around, sort of very Deleuze and Guattarian influenced stuff. There was lots of interesting things that I sort of picked up on. But there was something that I didn't quite gel with, and that I felt wasn't really hitting the spot of what I was interested in when it came to the question of the subject in relation to technology. And I started to do more Lacanian theory, and was getting more kind of immersed into the clinical side of things. And the more I read Lacan and was around Lacanians, I started to develop different kind of interests in the question of technology, which was certainly more focused on the psychoanalytic side of these sort of post-human concerns. As opposed to the sort of more traditionally biopolitical questions. In the sense that, I wasn't just interested in, obviously, the political side of things, and obviously the question of capitalism and data and the body and all those things. But I became interested in really the sort of psychoanalytic structural conceptual questions around AI, and subjectivity, as two discourses that were sort of intimately intertwined. And it sort of occurred to me that Lacan was probably one of the most sophisticated thinkers for artificial intelligence, even though he probably had never properly been used for artificial intelligence, because of course, they didn't exist when he was around. But he kind of had an infrastructure there already that I thought was sort of ready at hand, that could help to look at some of the really much more interesting questions — I felt, to do with AI. And of course, this is intimately connected to the question of sexuality and the body. So that's how it kind of first started.

Am Johal  4:23
I'm wondering, before we get into the kind of bit around your engagement with Deleuze, Foucault and Agamben. What did you find in that work that was relevant to your project, at least where it started initially?

Isabel Millar  4:36
I think sort of my master's degree was focused on Deleuze and Foucault and biopolitics and the body. And really, it was sort of much more interested in looking at the different kinds of apparatuses that technology at large, was kind of developing in relation to how humans interacted with each other. And, the kind of very now well-trodden area of kind of the Deleuzian and approach to subjectivity, which basically explodes any idea of the kind of desire in the Lacanian sense. And I'm sure lots of people listening to this will be aware of the kind of conflict between the Deleuzian and the Lacanian approaches to the subject. And I think there was too much people quick off the trigger to kind of appropriate the Deleuzian approaches to subjectivity, which kind of forgotten a lot of the important questions around language, and speech, and the body, and enjoyment, that were so central initially to the whole kind of Lacanian project. And of course, what Deleuze tried to extract from Lacan. So it was really a question of trying to maintain some idea of what the question of the body really means when we're talking about artificial intelligence, and how not to lose the sort of psychoanalytic insights that may have been forgotten with a lot of the posthuman literature.

Am Johal  6:09
Isabel, I'm wondering if we can sort out the entanglement of Lacan with technology with the post-human, with AI, these are interesting questions to kind of forced together to think through. What the Lacanian questions might be, I’m wondering what your approach was in carrying out your dissertation in your book?

Isabel Millar  6:30
Well my approach was actually very unsystematic actually, because the way that I went about it was really to look at film, first and foremost. And it was through the analysis of film that I started to kind of develop a way of thinking with Lacan that, I think, sort of opened up new ways of trying to use cycle psychoanalysis — to think about technology. That I don't think has necessarily been done before, because most of the time with Lacan, it' the sort of standard way that people think of Lacan in relation to, for example, cybernetics — is very much early Lacan thinking about the combinatorial unconscious and algorithm. And all of this much more hard structuralists side of Lacan. And for people who read Lacan, will know is that towards the later part of his teaching, he very much changes his approach to thinking about the concept of jouissance, for example, to thinking about language, and to thinking about the unconscious as not just a system of combinatorial structures, but actually as the question of the body, and very much the sort of effective bodily nonsensical side of the question. So, this transition between the unconscious structured like a language, to the unconscious as a speaking body, and unconscious as different forms or structures of enjoyment — which is in line with his famous phrase that he uses — the non-rapport, the non-existent sexual relationship. And this kind of idea of a kind of structural disjunction really becomes very important when we start to think about the application of the concept of AI, in relation to human intelligence. So the first part of the book, is actually trying to work up towards this question via the sort of traditional route of sort of philosophy or critical theory approaches to AI. Which would probably take a more a different approach to AI in the sense of thinking about it as this kind of different, ghostly imitation of human Intelligence. An imaginary sort of gestalt of the idea of a thinking thing. And of course, for Lacan, this thinking thing is not a thing. There isn't such a thing as the thinking subject. It's this punctual, evanescent moment, that only happens in the moment of speech. So the first part of the book is really trying to articulate what a psychoanalysis of AI would be, as opposed to a philosophy of AI. And sort of breaking down the steps to get towards that. So first of all, I would approach the question of intelligence as a kind of a concept, which has been — sort of a sleight of hand that has happened with the way that we think of AI. Because we think we know what intelligence is, of course, if you look at the history of intelligence, that that concept has morphed and changed according to different scientific paradigms, different political interests, and the difference of historical junctures that change the way that we conceptualize it. So Katherine Malibu wrote books, this very good book called, Morphing Intelligence, where she sort of thinks about that very question, and gives a very interesting genealogy of the concept. And she finishes a book by saying, ‘well, we're now at this fourth blow to human narcissism — of course, following Freud's third blow human to narcissism — where we have to take AI as into account as a serious question for humans.’ And, and she says, ‘AI is a philosophical problem that we need to think about seriously, and there's lots of positive as well as negative questions surrounding that.’ So my starting point is to say, I agree, but I think it's not just philosophy that needs to take AI seriously, it's philosophy that needs to take psychoanalysis seriously in thinking about this question, because I think you can't do a philosophy of AI without a psychoanalysis of AI. Because of this kind of problem of the question of intelligence as already incorporating a certain question of stupidity, a certain question of absence of knowledge, or a structural dark spot, and so in from there, I start building out the other kinds of component questions that we would have to start thinking about in order to come to this psychoanalysis of AI.

Am Johal  11:02
In your work as well you do some very interesting in referring back to Jacques-Alain Miller's interview with Lacan where he poses the Kantian questions, ‘what can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope for?’ And, of course, the additional question of what is man? And I'm wondering if you can talk through this part of your work in that.

Isabel Millar  11:26
That's right in television, the interview, Miller asked Lacan the Kantian questions, the three sort of famous enlightenment questions. And Lacan says, ‘well, I'm a psychoanalyst, and it's not my job to answer those questions. It's my job to position the subject. So that they can answer those questions.’ And I thought this was quite a nice way of starting off the book, as a gesture towards how psychoanalysis operates in relation to some of the big philosophical questions that are always, you know — we are always trying to answer. And psychoanalysis, doesn't try and answer these questions in though in the way that philosophy tries to answer them. But nevertheless, they are central questions to the psychoanalytic project. And so I sort of used those models of questions as a way of trying to think about our relationship to AI, from a slightly sort of subverted point of view. So that each question would be taken up via sort of fictional text in a film, and to try and answer them as if it were a psychoanalytic question. So the first question, ‘what can I know?’ Is one which for me, is a question of the position of sexuality, and the way in which we can know whether we're a man or a woman is of course for psychoanalysis the central subjective question for all of us — am I a man or a woman? And very much, this is what conditions how we become subjects. So the first film that I talked about is Ex Machina, in which the famous Turing test is enacted between a man — a human man, and an artificially intelligent woman or sexbot. Where she has to convince the man that she's human. But really what she's doing is convincing him that she's female, because by the end of it, he's in love with her, and he wants to run off of her and have sex with her, and whatever. So it's really a sort of dramatization of the enactment of sexuality or sexual positioning, because, of course, she's not human. But in becoming, trying to convince him of her humanity, she has to convince him of her femininity, which become one in the same thing in this interaction. And I thought it was a quite elegant way of demonstrating the kind of intertwinement of how artificial intelligence is already parasitic upon certain questions that we have about subjectivity, that we don't necessarily already think about, just on a day-to-day basis. But psychoanalysis thinks about it of course. So the second question is, of course, ‘what should I do?’ Which is the ethical question of psychoanalysis. The question of, how one should act with respect to one's desire. And for psychoanalysis, the question of desire and ethics are absolutely intertwined and for Lacan the ethical act is one which takes into account the sort of diabolical and all-consuming desire of the subject. Which is why he engages with the Marquis de Sade in thinking about Kantian ethics. So that, for Lacan the question of Kantian ethics becomes a question of sort of Sadeian enjoyment. And he inverts these two thinkers to try and show how each one is implicated in the other thoughts in some way. And the third question is the question, ‘what can I hope for?’ which essentially, for AI is the question of — fictionally speaking, the question of what could the idea of a replicable subjectivity mean, as opposed to a reproductive subjectivity? So the difference between a human that is born, and a human that is made? Which of course we see dramatized in Blade Runner 2049. And, the famous plight that everybody knows from the original Blade Runner as well, which is the question of ‘am I a human?’ And that question becomes not am I human anymore, but was I born? Do I have a history? Do I have a mother? Which is obviously a deeply psychoanalytic question. So I was interested in thinking about what kind of questions we're asking when we're asking about whether you can replicate the human consciousness, and those questions of history, and motherhood, and all of these other psychoanalytic things.

Am Johal  15:56
I'm wondering if the problem of technological mediation as it relates to desire — what are the implications from a critical theory perspective, and both philosophy and psychoanalysis?

Isabel Millar  16:09
It's such a huge, huge question. And, the question of mediation in terms of, human desire or human subjectivity is one that, I think is kind of — it's actually been not very exhaustively thought about from a psychoanalytic point of view. And that's why I was kind of interested in bringing in — when we're starting to talk about the question of desire and technology, which is a quite well-known theme in psychoanalytic literature. What often I think is talked about is questions of capitalism and the sort of extinguishing of desire, because you're constantly just being fed the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. And how this has a sort of very deadening effect on subjectivity. And I think we can all sort of agree that, yes, that is definitely the case. And that is kind of indisputable now. And you don't even need to sort of have psychoanalysis to see that that's happening. Most people can see that themselves, just by every time they turn on their phone, and they want to smash it against the wall. We know this technology is bad for us. But at the same time, we also know, it's not as simple as that, it's a very complicated relationship, and it's a bio-political relationship. And it's a question that involves our very construction of our sense of self. So what then I kind of was interested in is trying to think about different concepts from psychoanalysis that could help us think a little bit more about the much more sort of material question of how the body is changing. And how the question of memory, the question of intelligence, and all of these concepts that we think that we understand, are mediated by this relationship between the technological object and our bodies. So for example, Bernard Stiegler — the late Bernard Stiegler — he wrote very much on this question of the harmonization process and how technology was this sort of pharmacom. But it wasn't as simple as saying, ‘oh, now we're cyborgs. And we've reached this kind of threshold where we are no longer human, because now we're technological.’ Which would be this old Haraway approach. And I think that someone like Stiegler had a much more nuanced way of sort of looking at the history of technology in relation to the actual evolution of the human body and the human brain. And trying to understand the very intricate process that this has undergone. And when of course, we get to the question of AI, it explodes. And it becomes an even more technically challenging question to think about — what's happening to the brain and what's happening to the body. When, for example, we would have things like neuronal implants or artificially intelligent, short circuits between human cognitive processes and artificially intelligent ones. For, of course, such a huge project — and I can only sort of scratch the surface, but I sort of tentatively touch on it and use, for example, Lacan’s concept of the Lathouse, which is this strange object that he talks about in seminar 17. A sort object that is a product of science and technology, in the sense that it's an invention of a new form of extracting the enjoyment from the body to create new forms of objects. And this is a very different type of object from just the object ‘A’, in the sense of a structural impulse of desire. Because the Lathouse is something which actually operates on — in my sort of understanding or development of the term, it's an object that operates on the drives. So it has an actual effect on the way that we develop our partial drives, the voice, the gaze, and how this is a way that can be interfered with by science and technology in a much more originary way than we've ever experienced before.

Am Johal  20:25
So I have a couple of questions. One of which is, how you're thinking through this project of how it relates to the body, and what implications can maybe be drawn from it. And secondly, as Jean-Luc Nancy just passed away a few days ago, but you know, his investigations into friendship and community in discussion with Derrida, Agamben and many others — are there implications of AI-related to the formation and dissolution of community? Are there implications that can maybe be drawn from thinking through these things philosophically and psychoanalytically?

Isabel Millar  21:04
For the question of community, yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think that one of the kind of— the original kind of impulses as well for the book was, the sort of very worrying, I suppose, fact that the people who are most powerful and influential in the development of AI, are of course, entrepreneurs and of course scientists, and lots of very clever people who are developing AI. But there are not many people from, say, the humanities or from philosophy, from psychoanalysis from disciplines which traditionally think about humans. Think about what are humans? And what and what are the important questions that we need to ask when we're thinking about the future of humans. And it was this kind of starkness of the fact that we've got sort of Elon Musk, and Ray Kurzweil, and Jeff Bezos, and they're the people who really out there defining what's coming up in the coming decades. Yet, forgive me for saying they don't seem to me to be the best-qualified people to think about what's good for humans. And I don't think anyone could dispute that, but yet they have such enormous power. And for example, somebody like Ray Kurzweil, who writes about the singularity, who writes about the future of human consciousness. And I think his belief is taken very seriously. Yet, if you look at his books there's very little knowledge of the actual history or critical history of human thought, in there. And there's certainly no mention of sexuality or any of those extremely important questions. So it was this kind of massive lacuna that I thought, well, why is nobody talking about this? Why is nobody addressing them? And I think that there just has this— there's this huge sort of gap between discourses of on the one hand, very kind of politically engaged and subtle, and nuanced approaches to the question of AI. And on the other hand, is bombastic, phallic, scientific ideas about the future of humanity. And it's all very sort of hubristic, but they don't really talk to each other. So I suppose that was also one of the ideas that I wanted to bring this into a conversation that would open up new conversations.

Am Johal  23:23
Now in terms of the reception of the book, it's certainly been circulating widely amongst a number of people that I know professors, psychoanalysts, colleagues of mine from European graduate school, and others but wondering from your perspective. What have you heard back about the book? Both strange, sublime and interesting, because you know, it's being read in philosophy, psychoanalytic, and other circles, probably within the AI community as well. And just wondering what you hear back as you know — you write a book, you put it out into the world, you work for a number of years on a dissertation, edited a book, and then it becomes something else, once it's out of your head. And what’s you're feeling of the reception part of launching it. 

Isabel Millar 24:04
It's been really lovely actually. Because, as you say, you don't know when you write a book. And certainly not when you're writing your PhD thesis, you don't know what's going to happen. You barely—  all you can think about is will I actually get my PhD? So that was my concern. So, the fact that anyone want to publish it, on let alone read it, was very, very encouraging and heartening. And then I got lots of really wonderful positive responses, and just people engaging with it from very different backgrounds, and obviously, academically different disciplinary backgrounds from philosophy and theory and psychoanalysis, but also from outside of academia, from people who are just interested and just thought, ‘oh, this is something interesting. I want to know about.’ And, people obviously get put off by the daunting thing of ‘oh its Lacan, and we can't read Lacan because it's hard and all that.’ And I think, that shouldn't put you off. Because yes, we're all academic books, there's sort of specialist knowledge required, but at the same time, the whole idea is that we're bringing new ideas together, and it should be for everyone, everyone should be able to engage with it. So I've been really amazed actually, by the feedback of people going, ‘wow, I didn't know what this book will be about. But I'm really amazed by the kind of questions that you're asking.’ And I've thought, ‘well, actually, I'm really amazed because I didn't know what questions I was going to ask.’ And I suppose just going in without having the preconceived idea of what I had to do as a PhD thesis, which I think sometimes a lot of people suffer from if they have too heavy-handed kind of suffocating supervision. And luckily, I had really great supervision that allowed me to explore and not feel that I was restricted by any disciplinary boundaries. I could just do basically do whatever I wanted. And, I suppose surprising yourself is really the best thing. And yeah, I suppose it's just kind of opening up new conversations really. So I'm hoping that more people will engage with it and want to take other questions further.

Am Johal  26:09
In terms of your own relationship to psychoanalysis, have you been either as a clinician or engaged in psychoanalysis yourself? And how has that sort of shaped your relationship to working with psychoanalytic theory?

Isabel Millar  26:23
Well, I haven't been in analysis. I mean, I did do my due diligence of saying, ‘okay, I have to go through the motions of going into psychoanalysis,’ because if I'm doing so much Lacan. And I didn't continue with it because, to be honest, being so immersed in Lacanian theory, and so surrounded by it, and thinking about it all the time, is a lot to have to cope with, and doing a PhD and all that. But it's also a sort of something that I'm sure lots of people will relate to, who are involved in psychoanalysis and theory is that sometimes I think you have to make a decision with something like, Lacan, which is that if I want to be able to be critical, if I want to be a philosopher, invert commas, I have to not have a master in a way. I have to be able to not be kind of constrained by what may be the kind of necessities of being in analysis myself, or wanting to be a clinician. Some people I think, can do that. And I think that is also a very big skill to be able to hold those two things separately. And that is by no means a sort of denigration of doing those both, because I think it's also really important that there are clinicians who also do theoretical work, it's essential. But I think for me, at this stage, I didn't feel that I wanted to have to deal with all of the other institutional questions of being a psychoanalyst. As well as trying to use psychoanalysis for theory and, and sort of conceptual thought.

Am Johal  27:56
I know that you're working on some new projects and some areas around patipolitics, I'm wondering if you can speak about some of your new work, and some of these concepts that you're thinking through?

Isabel Millar 28:08
So patipolitics was a concept that I sort of coined, I suppose, in the first in psychoanalysis of AI. And it kind of came about because, obviously, the central sort of conceptual tool that I use is this idea of the sexbot. Who is the figure who has to undergo the Kantian questions. And in the chapter on ethics, and sort of Sade and Kant, the question of patipolitics came up because I was thinking about Necropolitics. And I was thinking about how this sort of figure of the eternally abusable or fuckable sexbots that we have in fiction, and we have in film — obviously, we don't really have it in real life, we have the kind of very sort of basic perfunctory rubber dolls that people might call sexbots. But that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the conceptual idea of this Westworldian in creature that can be used and abused, and eventually, we have to start asking the question about the ethics of this, if we seriously did have, creatures we'd create for our own amusement. So this question of suffering, I thought was really interesting in relation to governance. Because Necropolitics being Achille Mbembe’s concept that he develops for coding questions of the biopolitical, in which he sort of looks at not just the question of the government of life, but the government of the sort of death. In a sense of the governance of how you create whole populations that live in a state of walking death, who don't have the sort of normal ideas of what humans should have in terms of freedom and, and basic comforts. So the idea of the politics of suffering from the Latin ‘patior’ to suffer. I started to think about in relation to sex and relation to how we have sort of started already, with this little seed of the idea of sex robots. That is everywhere in film and literature. We're already trying to think about what humans do when they're able to make other people suffer for their own enjoyment, which humans already do anyway, because humans are horrible, sadistic creatures who do that all the time. But we still have some sort of general idea of, ‘oh, that's bad.’ No, humans shouldn't do that. Because we shouldn't be sex trafficking — but when it comes to the question of, ‘oh, well, yeah, but you can create these things for the sake of allowing humans to get out there nasty, or indulgent sides.’ And there's no repercussions because it's something that can just be reprogrammed the next day. So the kind of idea of the question of the ethics of enjoyment, and how — what would happen when the kinds of infrastructures that are out there that allow us to enjoy or make others suffer, are kind of changed or exponentially augmented? How would that affect us? So it's more of a— at the moment, it's the kind of question of sort of fictive future, but we already see the seeds of this question, of patipolitics everywhere. It's everywhere you look, you can find instances where the politics of suffering are going on, and the reason why it's a sort of psycholytic concept is of course, because for psychoanalysis, jouissance or enjoyment is this paradox core concept, on the sort of threshold of pleasure and pain. And it's very much an enjoyment that is a suffering, and suffering that is an enjoyment. So patipolitics is a project which tries to look at the question of — the sort of ambivalent question of sexual suffering that we find everywhere. And that is only becoming more apparent.

Am Johal  31:49
How has the sort of disorienting pandemic period shaped or changed your thinking somewhat, or philosophers and psychoanalysts are oftentimes in a room by themselves anyway? So so maybe it was a source of comfort? I don't know. But I'm wondering if the period we've been through over the past year and a half or so. How that's affected you?

Isabel Millar  32:08
I mean, I think for most people who write, or think for a living, or academics, are used to having to sit on their own in rooms and writing whatever. So, in a sense, when the pandemic actually hit— I was actually in the midst of writing up my thesis — I wasn't really leaving the house anyway. So it kind of didn't make much difference to me. But it is very sort of mind-altering that you get so used to the idea that we don't see each other anymore, and everything is done by our screen. And you know, what's happened to academia? Really it's scary, because I, luckily, during my PhD, I did get a lot of opportunity to go out to conferences and to talk at events and all that fun stuff, that is associated with what is to be an intellectual or academic person who writes and thinks about stuff. And that was, really amazing that that was still a thing. And now it's sort of like, will that ever happen? Because now universities have got the idea that we don't need to do that anymore, because everyone just goes on zoom. ‘So why would we have events?’And that really worries me actually, because I think there's the sort of culture of having events with other humans where we talk ideas together, maybe get lost even more. And that's really quite a sad thing. And I really hope that that's not the case, but it's not looking good. [laughs]

Am Johal  33:36
Isabel, is there anything you'd like to add?

Isabel Millar  33:38
I just like to say I hope we get to have an in-person event one day, where we can have an actual conversation. [laughing]

Am Johal  33:46
Well you have a lot of fans here in Vancouver, we have a very robust and active Lacan Salon, and people are very familiar with your work, so I'm sure we will figure out a way to get you to Vancouver. Thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Isabel Millar  34:01
Thank you so much. It was lovely to talk to you.


Kathy Feng  34:06
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to this episode with Dr. Isabel Millar. To learn more about Isabel’s work take a look at the show notes below. If you enjoyed the episode, we’d really appreciate it if you'd drop us a rating and review in Apple podcasts. It really helps us to reach more listeners and bring more people into these conversations! Thank you for tuning in, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
October 20, 2021

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