Automated Inequality Virginia Eubanks documents the steady incorporation of predictive analytics by US social welfare agencies. Among other promises, automated decisions aim to mitigate fraud by depersonalizing the process and by determining who is eligible for benefits.10 But, as she documents, these technical fixes, often promoted as benefiting society, end up hurting the most vulnerable, sometimes with deadly results. Her point is not that human caseworkers are less biased than machines – there are, after all, numerous studies showing how caseworkers actively discriminate against racialized groups while aiding White applicants deemed more deserving.11 Rather, as Eubanks emphasizes, automated welfare decisions are not magically fairer than their human counterparts. Discrimination is displaced and accountability is outsourced in this postdemocratic approach to governing social life.
So, how do we rethink our relationship to technology? The answer partly lies in how we think about race itself and specifically the issues of intentionality and visibility.
I Tinker, Therefore I Am Humans are toolmakers. And robots, we might say, are humanity’s finest handiwork. In popular culture, robots are typically portrayed as humanoids, more efficient and less sentimental than Homo sapiens. At times, robots are depicted as having human-like struggles, wrestling with emotions and an awakening consciousness that blurs the line between maker and made. Studies about how humans perceive robots indicate that, when that line becomes too blurred, it tends to freak people out. The technical term for it is the “uncanny valley” – which indicates the dip in empathy and increase in revulsion that people experience when a robot appears to be too much like us.
Robots are a diverse lot, with as many types as there are tasks to complete and desires to be met: domestic robots; military and police robots; sex robots; therapeutic robots – and more. A robot is any machine that can perform a task, simple or complex, directed by humans or programmed to operate automatically. The most advanced are smart machines designed to learn from and adapt to their environments, created to become independent of their makers. We might like to think that robotic concerns are a modern phenomenon, but our fascination with automata goes back to the Middle Ages, if not before.