Defining the Voice of Montreal: Exploring Possibilities for Human-Machine Companionship

University essay from Lunds universitet/Avdelningen för etnologi

Abstract: This thesis explores the possibility for (re)defining the relationship between humans and robots with conversational interfaces. It does so by looking at the creation process of a voice and text-based virtual assistant for tourists from the perspective of critical posthumanism and posthuman performativity. In a reflexive fashion, I analyze my involvement in a tech start-up, in order to argue that, rather than being ontologically separated, the boundaries between humans and machines are culturally and historically constructed. Moreover, through a closer look at the development of my own relationship with the prototype of the voicebot and my performance of ‘demos’ among uninitiated users, I put forward a relational understanding of how humans and machines become with - and constantly remake - each other. This allows me to redefine our relationship with intelligent artefacts beyond mere instrumentality, towards a form of human-machine companionship that highlights the potential of the relationship. Finally, through a practical engagement with the idea of posthuman responsibility, I analyse the effects of specific features of the voicebot and imagine how the boundaries between human and machines can be re-configured in a more responsible way. Amongst other things, this allows us to re-contextualize labor relations associated with service work and product development, with respects to how these practices shape gender and race. The thesis concludes by stating the relevance of these results for the fields of tourism and product development.

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