Android Linguistics: How Machines Do Things With Words

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The field of artificial intelligence (AI) was founded on the conviction that in order to make computers more advanced, it was necessary to build them to be more human. Adopting the human form as the blueprint for computer systems allowed AI researchers to imagine and construct computer systems capable of feats otherwise unimaginable for machines. As the institutions and professional boundaries of the field have evolved over the past 70 years, they have at times obscured the figure of the human at the heart of AI work. However, in moments of heightened optimism, when researchers permit themselves to speculate on the fantastic futures AI technologies will one day enable, it is inevitably to this figure that the field returns, forever striving to resolve that originary question of just what is the nature of this human intelligence the field has so long pursued?

In this dissertation, I trace the emergence of the figure of the human at the center of AI work. I argue that the human at the center of the imaginary of AI is rooted in a deeper impulse---that of envisioning not machines that think, but machines that speak. It is language that most fundamentally defines the original ambition of AI work and the inability to conceptualize language apart from the human that draws the field inevitably back to this figure. With language properly at the center of its project, AI becomes a study not of the physical world but of the narrative universe, not of the biological human being but of literary character, not of machinic intelligence but of machinic personhood.

Drawing on the history of AI's entanglements with language, I argue for a reconceptualization of the project of AI around a vision of language not as an encoding of solitary thought but as a collection of shifting social practices that allow human and non-human intelligences to navigate their shared worlds despite their irreducibly alien cognitive realities. Such a reorientation, I contend, makes room for a broader vision of AI work that joins critical and technical practices in the shared project of grappling with the question of what it means to be human.





Donahue, Evan (2021). Android Linguistics: How Machines Do Things With Words. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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