Illustration by Somnath Bhatt

Exploring the Boundaries of Humans and Machines

A guest post by Laura Forlano. Laura, a Fulbright award-winning and National Science Foundation-funded scholar, is a writer, social scientist, and design researcher. She is an Associate Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. Twitter: @laura4lano

This essay is part of our ongoing “AI Lexicon” project, a call for contributions to generate alternate narratives, positionalities, and understandings to the better known and widely circulated ways of talking about AI.

Who is human, what is a machine, and who gets to decide where the boundaries lie?¹ In the field of AI research, who is included and who is excluded in the category of the human? The answer depends on whose knowledges, practices, and modes of living inform your analysis.

The field of AI has been shaped significantly by its co-evolution with humanism and the ways that it is entangled with Western Enlightenment thinking, which assert that science and technology — not, for example, art, religion and mysticism — are the unquestioned drivers of innovation, linear human progress, and modernity. From the embedding of computing into the human body (e.g., Elon Musk’s Neuralink) to the current obsession with (big) data-driven modeling to the media frenzy around Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket launch — this basic assumption is found in businesses, universities, and public policy. While there are many reasons to continue to trust in the benefits of science (the Covid-19 vaccine being an example for which I’m particularly grateful), there are also a number of very good reasons to question this dominant logic — in particular, its extreme focus on quantification, measurement, efficiency, and the harmful ways in which it is bound up with power and capital. I argue for a more expansive notion of what it means to be human — one that integrates other ways of knowing and being into discussions about AI, technology, and science.

With respect to the history of AI in particular, the ways in which humans and machines are understood to be either analytically similar or different as well as whether humans and machines are understood to be in competition or cooperation with one another.² Indeed, the history of computation and cybernetics suggests that humans and machines are similar in that humans and all of social life are merely complex systems that can be modelled, mapped, and rendered computable.³ Metaphors, sociotechnical imaginaries,⁴ and technovisions⁵ that conflate the capabilities of humans with machines can be found throughout academic literature about AI as well as in the mainstream media including claims about the prowess of DeepMind’s AlphaGo, the “uncanny valley” of the latest humanoid robots such as Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, the frequent threat that robots “will take” our jobs, and the enthusiasm about autonomous vehicles.

Over the past 15 years, the AI field has begun to integrate human-centered approaches from Human-Computer Interaction⁶ in order to move beyond purely technical approaches and toward the integration of humanistic and ethical considerations.⁷ While the instincts toward such approaches is laudable, human-centered AI does little to address deeper issues such as the way in which “the human” is defined around liberal Western Eurocentric notions of individuality, rationality, and autonomy that are typically, white, male, and ableist.

In contrast to human-centered understandings and approaches, a wide range of perspectives from diverse fields have worked to decenter the human⁸ and recognize the potential roles and agencies of the nonhuman (from scientific instruments to computation as well as microbes, plants, and animals). For example, scholars in the social sciences and humanities have been rethinking binary categories of human/nonhuman and human/nature that have been inherited from Western Enlightenment thinking. Specifically, who counts as human and how these boundaries are defined and maintained is deeply tied to histories of colonialism, racism, expansionism, and empire. In the sections below, I highlight scholars and schools of thought that aim to destabilize these Eurocentric notions of the human as a discrete individual autonomous subject, and explore a range of debates around the cyborg, the posthuman, the Anthropocene, and the more-than-human.⁹

I highlight the perspectives below as a way to unsettle the dominant understanding of the human and the nature of the social world as it is embedded in the field of AI research. By taking these ideas into account, we can expand and reimagine what it means to be human and what kinds of relations we might like to have with each other, with technologies, the things that we design, and with the (so-called) natural world.

Cyborgs, Actor-Networks and Object-Oriented Ontologies: From Donna Haraway’s cyborg¹⁰ to Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT)¹¹ and Ian Bogost’s object-oriented ontologies (OOO),¹² recent posthumanist scholarship has taken a keen interest in the role and politics of nonhuman things — which might be understood to include the “artificial” things that humans have designed as well as things that exist in the natural world. As both computational- and bio- technologies have expanded, they have also challenged the boundaries of the human leading to new hybrid categories, arrangements, and “assemblages.” In this conceptualization, nonhumans play a role in the social world,¹³ mutually shaping knowledge, participating in the shaping of issues across networks and making society, politics, and ethics “durable” through technology.¹⁴ While ANT is often criticized as being a flat (and even apolitical and conservative¹⁵) ontology, drawing on a branch of philosophy called speculative realism, OOO is concerned primarily with the aesthetics of things for their own sake, a very deliberately flat analysis that asserts that nothing has “special status.”¹⁶ Because it is difficult to understand the world from the perspective of things, these perspectives have been accompanied by a wide range of inventive and speculative methods including feminist fabulation,¹⁷ speculative design,¹⁸ and thing-centered ethnography.¹⁹

Feminist New Materialism: While there is some overlap between ANT and feminist new materialism in science and technology studies (STS), one branch of feminist new materialism — critical posthumanism — is different in that it is grounded in anti-humanist philosophy, which is built upon post-structuralism, feminism, and post-colonial theory. For critical posthumanists, a relational and collective understanding of the self (rather than self-centered individualism) that considers the relations between people, technologies, and the environment is essential.²⁰ Critical posthumanists take racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, and other –isms seriously as part of the history and present conditions that have been created by the Western Enlightenment.

Transhumanism: Trancendence,²¹ the 2014 science fiction film, comes to mind as a representation of a future in which humans will transcend our biology through technology as desired by transhumanists such as the Singularity organization.²² In social theory, transhumanism is largely dismissed as uncritical, overly revolutionary, and tech-centric, yet this perspective still dominates much of the literature about computing and AI as well as mainstream understandings about technology.

One of the dominant critiques of these various strands of posthumanism is that they continue to center Western notions of the human, thereby continuing to benefit the same power structures within scholarship and practice, which, drawing on Indigenous thought and practice, anthropologist Zoe Todd writes is a way of “gentrifying our discourses.”²³ As a new ‘paradigm’ for the human, posthumanism once again universalizes and totalizes the production of knowledge around white, European, and North American scholars and practitioners. While some versions of posthumanism claim a politics around gender, race, disability, and decoloniality, it often remains abstract and theoretical.

Critical gender, race, disability, and indigenous studies: Another approach to rethinking and destabilizing Western notions of the human is to engage with perspectives directly from critical gender, race, disability, and indigenous studies in what might be considered as radical humanism. Radical humanism acknowledges that liberal, Western humanism has dehumanized women, Black, disabled and indigenous people over hundreds of years. As such, scholars and activists have been writing and fighting for the human rights for people that have been continually excluded. Thus, rather than replacing the category of the human altogether, there is a need to unsettle, redefine and reimagine liberal, Western humanism more expansively (without essentializing experiences of difference).

Concepts such as the cyborg and the posthuman have been critiqued both by critical race studies and disability studies scholars who assert that these concepts do not take race and disability into account.²⁴ Julia DeCook argues that these concepts “exacerbate categories of difference” and are embedded with white, patriarchal violence, emphasizing the point that our theoretical constructs do not exist outside of our politics.²⁵ Alison Kafer writes that: “Arguing for the breakdown between self and other, body and machine, takes on a different hue in the context of coercive medical experimentation and confinement. The cyborg, in other words, can be used to map many futures, not all of them feminist, crip, or queer” (Kafer, 2013).²⁶ Similarly, the poet Jillian Weisse critiques Haraway’s cyborg for borrowing from the lives of disabled people without explicitly mentioning us,²⁷ calling people that are not disabled “tryborgs.”²⁸

Radical humanism drawing on critical race theory and Black studies offers alternative possibilities for expanding current notions of human experience. For example, in her book, Becoming Human, Zekkiyah Iman Jackson describes alternative modes of being that capture “an unruly sense of being/knowing/feeling existence, one that necessarily disrupts the foundations of the current hegemonic mode of “the human.”²⁹ Similarly, in Dear Science, Katherine McKittrick describes the “humanizing work” of black creatives illustrated by “scientifically creative and creatively scientific artworlds.”³⁰ McKittrick argues that we must be committed to “interhuman relationalities” and “academic practices that disobey disciplines” in order to understand from the ways in which Black creative works such as “the song, the groove, the poem, the novel, the painting, the sculpture,” which “definite black humanity outside colonial scripts.”³¹

As these critiques of the cyborg, the posthuman, the more than human, and the Anthropocene illustrate, experiences of human difference based on gender, race, and ability both challenge and expand our notions of who/what counts as human as well as challenging traditional notions of scientific, objective and individualistic scholarly work. In particular, these authors engage with the ways in which female, Black, queer, and disabled bodies reconfigure and reorient our lived experiences towards other realities and futures. Which understanding of the human will form the basis for the future of research on AI? Is a pluriversal³² AI possible?


[1] This article draws in part on a previously published article. For a more in-depth discussion of these themes, please see: Forlano, Laura. (2017). Posthumanism and Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3(1), 16–29.

[2] Coeckelbergh, Mark. AI Ethics (MIT Press Essential Knowledge series) The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Finn, Ed. (2017). What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[4] Jasanoff, Sheila, & Kim, Sang-Hyun. (2015). Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[5] Bell, Genevieve, & Dourish, Paul. (2007). Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 11(2), 133–143.

[6] Xu, Wei. (2019). Toward human-centered AI: a perspective from human-computer interaction. Interactions, 26(4), 42–46.

[7] Specifically, Wei Xu (2019) describes these developments as an orientation towards: 1) technological enhancement defined as the use of AI to “enhance humans rather than replace them” with a focus on preserving the value of human intelligence and capabilities; 2) ethical considerations such as the focusing on the impact of AI and avoiding the harms or discrimination and inequality to insure that AI solutions are “responsible, ethical, secure, and inclusive”; and, 3) focusing on human factors making AI “explainable, comprehensible, useful, and usable.”

[8] Forlano, Laura. (2016). Decentering the Human in the Design of Collaborative Cities. Design Issues, 32(3), 42–54.

[9] Forlano, Laura. (2017). Posthumanism and Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3(1), 16–29.

[10] Donna Jeanne Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, ed. Donna J. Haraway (New York: Routledge, 1991).

[11] Bruno Latour, introduction to Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 10.

[12] Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 6.

[13] Bruno Latour, introduction to Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 10.

[14] Ibid., 3–4.

[15] Lossin, R.H. (2020, June 1). Neoliberalism for Polite Company: Bruno Latour’s Pseudo-Materialist Coup. Salvage.

[16] Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 6.

[17] Haraway, Donna J. (2011). SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far. ADA: A Journal of Gender New Media & Technology(3).

[18] Dunne, Anthony, & Raby, Fiona. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[19] Giaccardi, Elisa, Cila, Nazli, Speed, Chris, & Caldwell, Melissa. (2016). Thing ethnography: doing design research with non-humans. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems.

[20] Braidotti, Rosi. (2013). The Posthuman. Boston: Polity.

[21] For more information, see for example IMDb’s page for Transcendence (2014),

[22] For more information, see

[23] Todd, Zoe. (2015). Indigenizing the anthropocene. In H. Davis & E. Turpin (Eds.), Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies (pp. 241–254).

[24] Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 8.

[25] DeCook, Julia R. (2020). A [White] Cyborg’s Manifesto: the overwhelmingly Western ideology driving technofeminist theory. Media, Culture & Society, 0163443720957891.

[26] Kafer, Alison. (2013). Feminist, queer, crip. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

[27] Here, I refer to myself as a disabled scholar and design researcher.

[28] Weise, Jillian. (2018). Common Cyborg. Granta(September 24).

[29] Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. (2020). Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. New York, NY: NYU Press.

[30] McKittrick, Katherine. Dear Science and Other Stories (Errantries) (pp. 2–3). Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.

[31] Ibid. pg. 52.

[32] Escobar, Arturo. (2018). Designs for the pluriverse: radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds: Duke University Press.