Spencer Marc Kaplan

Grant Type

Dissertation Fieldwork Grant

Institutional Affiliation

Yale U.

Grant number

Gr. 10693

Approve Date

April 15, 2024

Project Title

Kaplan, Spencer (Yale U.) "Encoding the Future: Society, Ethics, and the Human in San Francisco’s Generative AI Research Community"

How do emergent technologies and their politics depend on the speculation and management of humanity’s future? This ethnographic project studies efforts among artificial intelligence (AI) researchers to reckon with their technologies’ societal impacts. It is sited in the San Francisco Bay Area: the geographic center of what AI proponents call a “generative revolution” fueled by powerful new models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Among AI researchers and other local technologists, two speculative futures now proliferate: one in which humanity flourishes from AI and another in which AI destroys civilization. Though dismissed by critics as distractions from present issues, these futures inform their proponents’ worldviews, prompting reflections on society, ethics, and the human as objects of transformation. This project follows these futures across the work and lives of AI researchers. To do so, it traverses official industry sites and spaces outside of work. It combines participant observation, interviews, and media analysis. This project will show how the future, as a culturally productive object in the present, informs the development of an already impactful—and harmful—technology. More broadly, it can show how the future configures the culture and politics of US elites today.