School for Talents meets IRIS – Electric Dreams: Literary Narratives as Tools for Critical Reflections upon Intelligent Systems

July 5, 2022

For this year’s School for Talents annual theme “Systems Reloaded – New Perspectives”, our participants had the pleasure of spending time with Dr. Curtis Runstedler from the English Literature department at the University of Stuttgart. Dr. Runstedler’s work is closely associated with IRIS (Interchange Forum for Reflecting on Intelligent Systems) – and is thus a great fit for our program. As a special research focus at the University of Stuttgart, IRIS “provides a platform to stimulate, develop and promote critical reflection on intelligent systems and their impact on society.” In this context, Curtis looks at technology through the lenses of literature – his interdisciplinary research examines the literary representations of robots and AI in the 21st-century English novel. 

“These narratives of robots and AI can be used as tools to critically reflect upon intelligent systems – pointing out not only our shortcomings with technology, but also our relationships to technology, between the created and the creator.” [Dr. Curtis Runstedler]

Works of literature, movies, and art influence the ways in which we engage with technology. Dr. Runstedler’s workshop shed light on the underlying questions that are being presented in novels such as "Klara and the Sun" – Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel – or popular series such as Westworld, that address our complicated relationships to AI, and robots in particular. Workshop participants discussed what it means to be human and/or robotic, why we fear AI, but also why we are excited about its opportunities. We also talked about the extent of robotic consciousness, and the ethical components of such debates. Raising awareness for the effects of AI on society, and the implications our relationship to AI have on our lives, is an essential part of Dr. Runstedler’s work with IRIS.

“IRIS is an interdisciplinary collaboration between humanities scholars, sociologists, linguists, computer scientists, engineers, and more, and aims to explore intelligent systems in its many forms as we become more technologically advanced and immersed as a society.” [IRIS website]

In addition to providing our Talents with a perfect summer reading list, the workshop was helpful towards understanding the value of exchanging ideas between participants from different fields of study. Participants with backgrounds in robotics, engineering and cybernetics, but also literary and cultural studies, analyzed texts from contemporary novels in small groups. They produced surprising results that may have already led to first ideas for a creative homework assignment: Inspired by Philip K. Dick’s classic novella "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", ELECTRIC DREAMS invites our students to take part in a creative writing contest that fosters interdisciplinary ideas about robots and AI in literature. We are curious to read the pieces – stay tuned to find the best ones on our website later this year!

If you are interested in the works discussed, and if you are looking for summer reads, find some inspiration here: 


  • Chambers, Becky. A Closed and Common Orbit. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016.
  • Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and the Sun. New York: Knopf, 2021.
  • McEwan, Ian. Machines Like Me. London: Jonathan Cape, 2019.
  • Smyth, James. I Still Dream. London: Harper Collins, 2018.
  • Winterson, Jeanette. Frankissstein: A Love Story. London: Jonathan Cape, 2019.

And some bonus ones!

  • Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. London: Pan Books, 1985.
  • Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. New York: Gnome Press, 1950.
  • Čapek, Karel. Rossum’s Universal Robots (R. U. R.). London: Penguin, 2004.
  • Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Doubleday, 1968.
  • Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
  • Griffin, Sarah Maria. Spare and Found Parts. London: Harper Collins, 2016.
  • Winterson, Jeanette. 12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next. London: Vintage, 2021.
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