[ISEA2020] Paper: Joseph Thibodeau & Ceyda Yolgörmez — Open-source Sentience: the Proof is in the Performance


Keywords: relational sentience, human-machine relations, artificial intelligence, affective interaction, rituals of interspecies community

This paper asks how AI can change the consensus around the notion of sentience, through a specific focus on the intertwining of culture and materiality, as well as human-nonhuman relations. The question of sentience in machines is generally regarded as a rather fetishizing notion that obscures the specific assemblages of AI. We would like to open up this notion of fetish, and provide a theoretical map for an inverted way of understanding how fetishization of AI could be mobilized in cultivating an interspecies community. [1] The ideas reflected in this paper are drawn from a research-creation project that took place in Spring of 2019, Machine Ménagerie , in which a collection of small autonomous robots serve as a medium for considering different understandings of human-machine interaction.
Machine Ménagerie creates the basis for interrogating the exclusive definition of sentience as a measurable property. We argue instead for an approach that would emphasize (1) the relational nature of the notion of sentience, and (2) the rituals of care and friendship in relating to nonhuman others. In this context, sentience is not something that beings own, or that humans bestow upon things, but rather is something that is continuously achieved and in which humans and nonhumans participate.

  • Joseph Thibodeau, PhD Student, Machine Agencies Research Group, Milieux Institute, Concordia University. Joe Thibodeau is an artist-researcher based in Montréal Canada. His activities include sound/music production and performance, human-machine interface design, hardware hacking, sensory practices, robotics, machine learning, and typewriter repair. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Concordia’s Individualised Program (INDI) with a focus on the self as a product of sensory interactions.
  • Ceyda Yolgormez is a PhD candidate in Social and Cultural Analysis Program in Concordia University. She is also the coordinator of the research group Machine Agencies in Milieux Institute. Her main research looks at the socialization of AI agents through situated interactions in game contexts. She studies the game-playing AIs and focuses on the material-discursive conditions through which specific articulations of their agencies emerge. Alongside this, she thinks about the implications of doing a sociology of AI, both for the discipline of sociology, and for the futures that are cultivated by machinic intelligences. She is interested in new forms of social relations that come into being through imaginaries and practices that sustain interactions with AI systems.