The study of metaphors and narratives can sharpen our awareness of AI technologies as neither neutral, magical, nor inexplicable, and as entirely marked by social and local conditions shaping how this technology evolves.
Metaphors and narratives are world-building and future-envisioning modes of representation of artificial intelligence (AI), doing epistemic work by actively shaping the texture of reality. In this essay, we frame AI as ‘poetically charged’; that is, its metaphors and narratives evoke philosophical and critical reflection on what it means to be human amidst machines designed to appear and act human-like. We bring this “poetic charge” to a study of metaphoric language and narratives of AI through select works of Chinese Science Fiction (SF) literature and in digital advertising and marketing campaigns. As we will discuss ahead, AI exists in past works of fiction that generate imaginaries of this technology before it was technically feasible; and contemporary “socio-technical imaginaries” continue to be generated as it evolves now. Hence, metaphors and narratives sourced from across time allow for a unique perspective on the shaping of AI in the socio-political and cultural context of contemporary China. We identify one pair of metaphors for discussion, a common one that exists in many different parts of the world: AI understood as both threat and tool. The popularity of this metaphor in China as elsewhere in the world suggests that governance actors critically review the positioning of China as substantially different from other countries; this may not be the case after all. We examine these metaphors in light of the human social conditions of life online in China, and specifically the conditions of digital labour. We propose that policy and governance actors critically assess the future of AI in terms of how the threat/tool dynamic refers to marginalized sections of Chinese society working as if they themselves were the tools of, and in, AI systems.