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  • Flora Leask

'AI and Popular Culture' by Dr Lee Barron: A Review

Academic Elana Gomel writes that ‘science fiction has a special role as a testing-ground for new forms of subjectivity and narrativity’ (4), meaning that the genre, by imagining scenarios including sentient non-humans such as cyborgs, is able to experiment with ways that we might accommodate for them in the future.

This is exactly what Dr Lee Barron does in AI and Popular Culture (2023). Released this year by Emerald Publishing, Barron’s book is timely, as news headlines announce the arrival of algorithms that seem to be able to do everything from writing academic papers to generating the background images of famous paintings.

AI and Popular Culture is perfect for those who aren’t quite sure what AI is in the first place, and whether or not they should be worried about it. Although Barron’s chapters on AI and literature, film, and television are the main substance of the book, what stands out is the way he introduces the topic. His first chapter, ‘Development of Artificial Intelligence’ not only outlines the history of machine intelligence – from ancient myths of ‘animat[ing] the inanimate’ (13) to Alan Turing to the algorithm in charge of Amazon’s recommendations – but also explains key differences between what people may think about AI because of science fiction, and the reality.

His subsequent chapters on AI and literature, film, and television are a quick-stop tour of the ethical dilemmas involving AI, which Barron illustrates with examples from popular culture.

The book establishes, and then examines, the distinction between two forms of AI: the first being the ‘Hal’ from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) kind— ‘General Artificial Intelligence’, which has human or higher levels of intelligence. This only exists in popular culture (so far), and Barron examines the philosophical questions it poses about what it is to be a non-human thing that thinks.

The second type — ‘Narrow Artificial Intelligence’— is the more banal, but hardly less interesting, reality of AI in our daily lives, such as Spotify’s personalised music suggestions. This Barron delves into in his final chapter ‘AI Culture’, which lays out how the present is being affected by ‘Narrow’ AI. As Barron writes:

“AI is transforming the world, from macro processes such as machine learning making massive strides in areas such as medical science and more precise stock trading, to helping people tailor recommendations of what new series boxset to binge on in their leisure time.” (6)

The book is an ambitious project, spanning the history of human ingenuity and paranoia when it comes to thinking machines. One travels from black-and-white, mainstream media depictions of AI like Terminator (Cameron, 1984), to more weird and wonderful indie gems such as Aniara (Kagerman & Lilja, 2018), which depicts an AI dying of grief after possessing human empathy.

What AI and Popular Culture reveals most of all, however, is Barron’s passion for researching AI depictions in all forms, and his dedication to making it a topic more easily accessible to all.

You can find Flora's interview with Dr Barron here.

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