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From today's SMBC, an idea about AI that's obvious in retrospect but seems to be new:

The mouseover title: "Later, Amazon conquered Heaven and we got The Cloud."

The aftercomic:

The whole strip:

Update — more here.



  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 9:25 am

    Perhaps not entirely new. In his 1999 SF novel A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge postulates a neurological intervention called Focus that effectively turns people into volitionless robots with unlimited patience for looking stuff up, answering questions, and operating infrastructure. From the POV of a non-Focused user, it looks like AI — you talk into a headset and stuff happens — but it's actually implemented by an army of Focused drones.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 9:31 am

    A question which has long puzzled me, but which I have until now been too embarrassed (and perhaps too ashamed) to ask. Do cartoonists (etc) have to learn/train/force themselves to depict someone as being coloured ? When I saw the man depicted in the image which forms a part of Mark's e-mail, the fact that he was coloured went straight over my head. He was just a man, a Google employee. But when I read the full article, it was quite clear that the cartoonist was "deliberately" portraying people of various colours (and, arguably, various ethnicities — I imagine the dark-skinned older man with the moustache as being Indian). I put "deliberately" in scare quotes because this is at the very heart of my question — is this a deliberate act by the cartoonist, an act intended to ensure that his portrayal of (in this case) the Google workforce is as accurate as possible, or has society evolved to the point where no conscious thought whatsoever is required (at least by some people) , and a cartoonist (etc) will automatically depict a group of humans as being of mixed races/colours/ethnicities/etc ? I ask because, as a white male in his mid 70s, if I were to attempt to draw a cartoon, I would automatically depict everyone as being white, unless the underlying message required one or more of those depicted to be of an obviously different colour/ethnicity/etc. It is not that I do not mix in mixed-colour circles, I do — my g.p. is coloured, for example, and I choose to see him in preference to the white practitioners at the same practice, my wife is Vietnamese/Chinese, and her hotel staff are of at least six nationalities including Philippina/o and Thai), and I have in the past had both an Indian and an African boss, as well as many coloured colleagues, but nonetheless I know in my heart that, were I to attempt to draw a cartoon, everyone in it would be white unless the plot required otherwise.

  3. Andrew Usher said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 9:55 am

    Well, I should imagine so, at least until it's become unconscious. This goes, really, for any depiction of differences between people of any sort. Is it especially difficult for race? Possibly; in the Western world it's still usual to think of the 'default' man or woman as white. I don't think this has fundamentally changed despite what people might say; certainly for me, I can say that whenever I take notice of someone that looks non-white, my mind will automatically recognise that fact – while the other way around of course fails.

    Oh, and this so-called 'idea about AI' can hardly be called obvious, because it is plainly not serious; only in a context of deliberate humor could one come up with it. Even there it doesn't strike me as an 'obvious' joke to make.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  4. Mark Hughes said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 11:24 am

    The cartoon: We already have this, it's Mechanical Turk. Outsourcing it to Hell means caring only an angstrom less than people already do about MT people in India, Indonesia, or Indiana. You get fairly low-quality work and research results from them usually, because it's poor people halfway around the world, but it's enough better than an AI server that it's worth the extra few pennies per query.

    That it's hideously immoral when we do it to Humans and will be just as immoral when we do it to AI doesn't seem to bother anyone.

    Race in cartoons: What I do in writing role-playing games (tabletop and computer) is randomization. I figure out what the demographics should be, put those in a table, and roll dice. Conscious brain won't choose randomly, but dice always will.

  5. Rodger C said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 11:29 am

    @Philip Taylor: Zach Weinersmith seems to make a point of depicting people as brown more or less by default, but he doesn't really do varying ethnic features. It reminds me a little of American school textbooks from the 1970s, filled with sketches by professional textbook illustrators who'd never learned to draw POC and now were mandated to attempt it.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 1:01 pm

    Roger C — Yes, that very point struck me : the darker faces are distinctly Caucasian in appearance, with the possible exception of the ?Indian? gentleman. I wondered whether this was deliberate, as people of similar colour may nonetheless have very different facial features, and I wondered whether he chose a Caucasian model so as not to suggest any particular ethnicity, or even so as to avoid any risk of accusation of visual stereotyping.

  7. Jonathan said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 2:25 pm

    Well, this comment section is highly at risk for turning icky, but I'll contribute a comment that I think is more linguistic in nature: People may want to look up the concept of "markedness", aka "marked vs. unmarked" to understand why they might think of "white" as some default "race" and anything else stands out.

    Less linguistically, I'll leave it up to individuals if they want to think about where and how they might have picked up such concepts, to what degree they represent reality faithfully, whether they help or hinder making their world better, and if they are content to persist them or would prefer to work on discarding them.

  8. Sean M said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 2:40 pm

    Philip: Zack Wienersmith seems to deliberately randomize the phenotypes, genders, ages, and sexual preferences of characters. The trope goes back to roleplaying games and early computer games in the 1970s, and was a reaction to the early 20th century Anglo fiction where everyone had to be Anglo-Irish, Germanic/Scandinavian, or a racial stereotype/token sidekick. (Alexiares of moonspeaker dot ca has some good rants about this).

  9. Rick Rubenstein said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 3:55 pm

    I suspect that Zach would give as the reason for his ethnically-diverse characters tending to all have similar features is that he's not a very good artist. (False, but something he frequently pokes fun at himself about.)

  10. Theophylact said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 12:24 pm

    He's a terrific artist, but not a very good draftsman.

  11. Philip Anderson said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 3:01 pm

    I think only white cartoonists would be likely to draw only white characters (and not all cartoonists are white). But returning to the subject, an AI cartoon program would probably only draw white characters :-)

  12. Martha said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 3:30 pm

    Maybe it's me, and I'm not religious so damnation isn't something I think about, but it wasn't until I read the full cartoon that I realized that the "damned" in "damned souls" actually meant damned, and wasn't some sort of intensifier.

    Philip Taylor – I'm not a cartoonist, but I am a lifelong coloring book colorer. Once I got a little older (junior high-ish), I always made the people various colors, since that's how people are in real life. I probably started doing this around the time I stopped coloring all trees and grass plain green, and started using a variety of shades of green. I wouldn't call it a deliberate choice.

  13. maidhc said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 11:33 pm

    My understanding about how cartoons work is that the cartoonist does a line drawing and tags it with the colours desired. The cartoon is then shipped off to Asia where non-English speaking colourists put in the colour.

    If you look closely at the Sunday comics you will sometimes see strange mistakes like the colour of a person's sleeve is the colour of the person standing behind it, not the rest of the jacket. There is very little communication in this process.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 5:08 am

    My sincere thanks to all who have responded to my initial question, and I am in complete agreement with Philip Anderson that only white cartoonists (working in countries that are — or were historically — primarily white) are likely to depict all characters as being white, a fact I intrinsically accepted but failed to make clear in my initial post.

    One question emerges from this, though — why is the lead protagonist portrayed with a white-coloured head region at the back, below his (black) hair and behind his (brown) face ? If, as I assume, this is intended to indicate that his hair is shaved close at the back, would not the skin colour which then shows through be very similar to his facial colouration ? As it stands, and especially in frame 11, he looks almost as if he is wearing a brown mask.

  15. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 6:03 am

    @ Philip Taylor

    I think he's meant to be greying at the sides.

    Also, just by the way, "coloured" is no longer in use in polite conversation. I know it used to be the inoffensive term, but things changed.

  16. Rodger C said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 7:00 am

    Yes, "people of color" is now the polite term (or was the last time I checked). This distinction makes exactly as much logical sense as any other historical phenomenon.

    I've adverted a couple of times to the very earnestly progressive college at which I briefly taught, where the recycle bins were labeled PAPER OF COLOR.

  17. Thomas Shaw said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 9:52 am

    Zach says, in a Reddit AMA:

    "I'll confess, my mental default is still white dude. So, I actively try to mix it up. Hopefully the next generation of Americans won't have a default race/gender mentally."


    Also, in response to Phillip Taylor's: "were I to attempt to draw a cartoon, everyone in it would be white unless the plot required otherwise."
    It makes sense to me, in line with Martha's comment above about illustrating, that a professional cartoonist would seek to make the characters diverse, in a way that a non-cartoonist might not think about on a first attempt.

  18. Mary Kuhner said,

    August 21, 2019 @ 3:41 pm

    My roleplaying gaming went through stages. Initially my default was that most characters were male. I caught myself on that, and the next stage was that significant characters were more often than not female, but third spear-chucker from the left was still always male. This led to my players being able to pick out significant individuals even when they were trying to blend with the crowd, so that was no good! Now I try to randomize on the fly.

    My current campaign has characters who variously require the pronouns he, she, it, and they; I'm getting better at that with practice, which may be useful outside the gaming context as well (one of our students is "they").

    I actually find mixing up ethnicity in the game much easier than mixing up gender, though my elves probably have the problem of "that person's an elf, I bet they're significant" that my women used to have…. It probably helps that I am not a visual person, so I don't have to fight with a default mental image of the character as a white human; there's not much of a default image at all.

  19. Hwa SH said,

    August 22, 2019 @ 8:20 am

    I live in South Africa where coloured refers to people who were originally of mixed descent but now form a discrete community. Not the same as black people and definitely not the same as Indians.

    Also about overcorrection: I nearly burst out laughing the other day when I was in a local arts and crafts gallery shop and a customer asked the cashier (both old white ladies) "Do you have anything with rhinos on it?" and the cashier replied "Unfortunately it's the least popular of the ethnic animals."

    I can only surmise someone must have told her that "native" is kinda archaic/slightly racist and she thought that applied to animals as well as people.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    August 22, 2019 @ 10:18 am

    The casher is not alone in her beliefs. See, for example, Ethnic Animals: A Full Color Introduction To The World Of Coloring Ethnic Animals: Volume 7 (Adult Coloring Books).

  21. Peter Erwin said,

    August 22, 2019 @ 11:06 am

    @ Philip Taylor:
    … the darker faces are distinctly Caucasian in appearance, with the possible exception of the ?Indian? gentleman. I wondered whether this was deliberate, as people of similar colour may nonetheless have very different facial features, and I wondered whether he chose a Caucasian model …

    It's interesting you interpret the facial features as "distinctly Caucasian", because it's difficult for me to believe that they are.

    The reality is that none of the people in Wienersmith's comics look like accurate models of humans, of any particular ethnicity. None of those people have visible lips, their eyes are all the same tiny, vertical ellipses, their noses all point to one side or another even when they're face-on — they don't really have human features at all.

    Jonathan had an excellent point about "marked vs. unmarked", which I suspect is what's going on here. That is, you (like most of us) have grown up in a society dominated by one particular ethnicity, and so when you see some common, abstract, cartoonlike version of a human — especially in an English-language context — you unconsciously assume it refers to the dominant ethnicity. (Similarly, if you see a stick figure without any obvious gender signifiers, you probably assume it's male.) Only if the drawing is visibly "marked out" as different from the standard — e.g., by skin tone or hair style or exaggerated eye shapes or whatever — do you recognize it as "different".

    To me, that's a plausible explanation of why you think the facial features are "Cacausian": not because they bear any real resemblance to real Caucasian facial features, but because you're unconsciously interpreting "cartoonish characters" as representing Caucasians, even when a visibly non-Caucasian skin tone suggests otherwise.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    August 22, 2019 @ 4:28 pm

    Peter — That is a very interesting hypothesis, and not one that I had previously considered. However, even after reading your contribution very carefully before re-visiting the cartoon, I still find all of the figures appear to me to be Caucasian, with the probable exception of the Indian-lookiing gentleman of whom I have previously written. Not being an expert in this field, I do not feel qualified to comment on what particular aspects of the figures lead me to interpret them as Caucasian, but amongst those that immediately come to mind are hairstyle and lip thickness. It will be very interesting to discover whether there are any non-Caucasian readers of LL who interpret the figures as being of their own ethnicity (or, for that matter, any Caucasian readers who nonetheless interpret the majority of the figures as being non-Caucasian).

  23. KeithB said,

    August 23, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    Stross' Laundry series has the same sort of thing – along with a lot of computer in jokes – they bind demons to do this kind of thing, as well as create zombies "Residual Human Resources".

  24. Joel T. Luber said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 2:51 pm


    Prior to seeing Peter's comment, I was planning on saying something substantially similar (but not as articulately, I'm sure). I'm curious, though, if you can explain further what you mean by saying "lip thickness" was something that identifies the characters as Caucasian to you? I actually don't see any of the characters as having lips at all (just mouths).

    I'm white and I see virtually nothing in the line art that directly or indirectly refers to actual phenotypes of actual ethnic/racial groups (white or otherwise). The *only* clue to me that pushes me to interpret the characters as being of varying ethnicities is the coloring of the skin and hair. However, I suspect that if this cartoon was B&W (without any shading) I would read the characters as all being white because of my own implicit bias and sense of what an abstracted, unmarked person is.

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