David Bates at the Humanities Center PostHUMANities series

The second lecture in the PostHUMANities series organized by Lehigh’s Humanities Center, was given by Prof. David Bates, chair of the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley University. His lecture, part of a project provisionally titled Human Insight: An Artificial History of Natural Intelligence, examined the history of artificial intelligence and cybernetics.

In a talk that spoke to historians of science and technology, media theorists, cognitive scientists, and anyone interested in the relationship between cognition and technology in a digital world, Prof. Bates argued that philosophical and scientific discourses of the mind and of technology both depend on analogies between cognitive processes and computational systems. Professor Bates highlighted the ways in which the brain has been seen to function like a machine and, inversely, machines have been understood to operate much like minds—from the early modern period to today. “Plasticity,” a term that describes adaptive engagements in both cognitive science and technology, anchors these convergences between human mind and machine—as in the early understanding of both the cortex and calculation machines as open, “dialogical” systems. Through careful historical analysis, Prof. Bates illuminated how an understanding of the mind as an adaptive mechanism developed in tandem with concepts of the computer as flexible in the face of error and change. As Alan Turing argued, during the late 1940s, “if the machine is infallible, it cannot be intelligent.”

This stimulating talk was a model of the kinds of interdisciplinary work that can bridge the humanities and engineering—as well as evidence for the long history of that interdisciplinary conversation. That this conversation about the digital Posthumanities will continue at Lehigh University was in evidence at the end of the talk, as an undergraduate student asked: “Where could one study this? What department here teaches such material?!” The answer is, of course, the Humanities Center and the books of David Bates.

Please join us for the next talk in the Posthumanities series: “Nature’s Voice: On Hearing Beyond the Human,” by Professor Kellie Robertson on November 6 at 4pm in Linderman 200.

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