The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to social media to Pokémon Go to Google, encounter our strange relationship with technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


73346694In shopping malls and airports, there has been a trend towards expensive touch screen computer assistants – what I’m calling a MallBot – and away from printed leaflets with maps. It’s highly likely you’ve encountered one of these robots somewhere near you, and your experience with them may have been good, bad, or indifferent (please let me know which!). If you are the kind of person who hates to talk to another living being in person, the MallBot offers you a convenient escape from human interaction… it’s not entirely likely this is a good situation from any perspective other than indulging your desire to avoid your anxieties, which does nothing to help alleviate them in the long term.

At their best, the MallBot offers a simple search for the stores in the shopping mall either by name or by subject, and then displays the location on a map. But that is often where the trouble starts. In the worst designs I have encountered, the MallBot attempts to direct you to the store by providing directions… but these are not the directions of an intelligent being like a human that can construct a set of instructions suited to our way of thinking. You will get no “walk this way until you see the fountain, then turn left.” Rather, you will be shown a stream of incomprehensible images intended to capture the steps required to reach your destination. Clearly these made sense to someone in the robot’s design team… but they mean nothing to the majority of humans who engage with it.

Before the MallBot, the standard solutions were a fixed installation with a printed map or a leaflet containing a map with an overlaid grid, and a directory of stores with the grid reference. If you can use a map, you can deploy either of these methods to find what you are looking for. It lacks the option to search, although pragmatically you can scan a list of shops faster than you can operate a touch screen search. It cannot be updated as easily as the digital version, but this is hardly a matter of virtue.

The difference between these two situations is that the leaflet or static map requires you to exercise your own competences while the MallBot attempts to do everything for you. That a rather worrying number of MallBot designs fail at giving directions is a sign of bad design, but it is not a cyber-debility unless we count the capacity for this situation to enrage you. But the humble leaflet is cybervirtuous in so much that encourages you to navigate, builds your own knowledge of the layout, and trusts in your skill and autonomy as more than enough to solve the problem facing you. It offers a cyber-capable arrangement. I rather suspect the leaflet is also cheaper to provide than the robot. The sole advantage of the MallBot is that it feels futuristic… but I worry about that vision of the future.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #2

Voice Assistants

Zelda 1926Try this simple test with whichever voice assistant you use, Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, or whatever: ask it “Which year was Star Wars: A New Hope released?” It’s almost certain it will tell you 1977. But this is incorrect. That is the year that Star Wars was released, but this film did not become A New Hope until the modified version was released in 1981, adding the subtitle and episode number to the name and the opening crawl.

Now this is clearly a pedantic point, but shouldn’t your robot provide you with accurate information? Our sci-fi androids like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation were characterised precisely by this kind of obsession with detail. But your smartphone has no intelligence of any kind: all it can do is search the internet, and parrot back answers, sometimes wildly wrong answers such as the one shown in the picture of Siri telling me The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was released in 1926, and attributing this ‘fact’ to the Wikipedia.

What a voice activated robot offers is convenience, and this is seldom something that encourages virtue, although that doesn’t make it inherently negative. Some forms of convenience are cyber-indolent i.e. they encourage laziness, some (such as cars) are nowhere near as convenient as we tend to think, and some are relatively benign. My ice-making robot, for instance, is a more convenient way of freezing water than ice cube trays, and doesn’t obviously instil any bad behaviour in me. The risks in using a voice assistant depend entirely upon what it is deployed for: using it to fact-check, as the opening example highlights, is a rather bad idea; asking it to play a song or phone someone is rather less risky.

That said, I found that Siri repeatedly failed to action my command “call after school club” because it forgot this was a number in my directory and instead started searching the internet for nearby after school clubs. So I changed the contact to ‘After School Club Sausages’, which briefly worked, before again reverting to internet search. Now, my son’s after school club is a contact named ‘Regina Sausages’, and I say “Call Regina Sausages” to call them. This works reliably. But notice how I have had to adapt to my voice assistant and not the other way around.

Voice activated robots are little more than a heuristic computer program triggering certain set functions and passing unknown commands to a search engine. But when we use them, we are relying on the computer systems of a central corporate-owned server to do the legwork. In the process, they gain information about us that helps the company to advertise and monetise us. There is nothing cybervirtuous about this arrangement, and perhaps we ought to be more cautious about what we are trading away for apparent convenience.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #1

A Hundred Cyborgs

One hundred cyborgs in five hundred words, a cybervirtue project.

What kind of being do we become when we use our smartphones, our laptops, our high-tech cars, or the ever-growing array of other robots on offer today? If a cyborg is the fusion between technology and organic life, then we are already cyborgs. Indeed, as Donna Harraway suggested, we have always been cyborgs. What’s more, we are now surrounded by an increasingly wide variety of robots, by which I mean machines that can act autonomously – everything from computerised calendars to something comparatively simple like a jukebox. The kind of humans that we are and the qualities of the technology we are living with collectively determine the kind of cyborgs we become.

In my new book, The Virtuous Cyborg, I explore the idea of cybervirtue. A virtue is a positive quality we ascribe to a person – she’s resilient, he’s compassionate, they’re fearless. Any given human-robot cyborg situation is cybervirtuous if that combination of humanity and technology encourages virtues in its human. A calendar app used to provide reminders for its human can help that person act in a more punctual manner, so we can call the human-calendar cyborg cyber-punctual or cyber-reliable. A FitBit can encourage its wearer to to exercise and thus could be called cyber-athletic, or cyber-healthy. Any positive quality we can talk about has its associated cybervirtue if there is some human-technology combination that can encourage it.

Often, our relationship with technology is less than virtuous. I call the negative behavioural consequences of living with technology cyber-debility. When a videogame combines addictive play with predatory monetisation we can call it cyber-compulsive or cyber-impoverishing. When internet sites encourage us to rely upon them for information instead of our own learning, they are cyber-stultifying or even cyber-stupefying. When a social network encourages abusive behaviour in its users, it is cyber-cruel. Often, the kinds of cyborgs we have become entail both cybervirtue and cyber-debility, and more besides.

This serial, A Hundred Cyborgs, looks at one hundred different cyborgs – a hundred interactions between humans and technology – in five hundred words or less, starting twice a week and switching to weekly near the end of the Summer. The purpose of the serial is to think about whether there are cybervirtuous possibilities in each situation considered, and to explore the cyber-debilities each technology implies. There is nothing definitive in what I will say (every form of cyborg life is open to interpretation and debate) but I hope by opening up our technological relationships to discussion in this way it will foster debate about the kind of cyborgs we are, and the kind of cyborgs we want to become.

Interested in cybervirtue? Please buy a copy of The Virtuous Cyborg and help support our independent small press publishers.

Speaking Gigs for Chris Bateman May-July 2018

You can catch me in all the following places in the UK and Europe over the Summer…

Twitter Chris Coffee

Thursday May 10th: Cyborg Living (London)

The Book Launch event for The Virtuous Cyborg

Whether you’ve noticed it or not, we have become cyborgs – human-machine hybrids. Whether it’s Facebook selling our personal data to be ‘weaponised’ by Cambridge Analytica, or Google suggesting answers to questions like “are women evil?” to people who asked for no such thing, our lives are affected by the machines we are living with. Cybernetic networks are all around us – and thinking about ‘neutral tools’ is no longer helpful. You’re already a cyborg… join us to help find out what would make a good cyborg!

Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen
2-4 Hoxton Square
London, N1 6NU


Tuesday May 29th: The Secret of Game Narrative (Košice, Slovak Republic)

How do you make the most of stories in games? Does your game need a narrative? Players agree that they value good storytelling in games, but what counts as a great game story depends in part upon the different ways that players enjoy games. This makes getting great stories into videogames much more challenging than any other medium. Award-winning game designer and narrative designer Chris Bateman invites you to discover how games tell stories. Once it becomes clear that every game creates a narrative, the question isn’t whether you need one but how much of your development resources you need to commit to supporting the stories your game is already telling.

Kino Úsmev Košice
Cassie Square 1
040 01 Košice


Thursday June 28th: Are You a Good Cyborg? (Manchester)

North West Book Launch event for The Virtuous Cyborg

A couple get married after a robot selected them as potential romantic partners. A politician loses an election in the aftermath of an erroneous story widely shared on social media. A teenager is run over as they cross the street while playing an alternative reality game. As humans let computers into ever more aspects of their lives, it becomes clear that there’s no such thing as a ‘neutral tool’ in the internet connected world. We've been living with robots - and acting as cyborgs - for quite some time now. Smartphones, laptops, fitness trackers, social networks, search engines... our world is filled with human-robot pairings, and it’s not always clear which half is pushing the buttons. The virtues of the kind of cyborg we have become must surely depend not only on who we are, but also upon the kinds of robots we use.

First Street
Manchester M15 4FN

Link pending


Saturday July 7th: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Moral Multiverse (Sheffield)

Part of Festival 23 presents Catch 23 

Grab your towel and set off on a grand adventure through the moral multiverse with award-winning game designer, philosopher, and Discordian Polyfather Chris Bateman as he invites you to rethink everything you thought you knew about ethics, get beaten up by 8-bit Aristotle, and face the Vogons in the never-ending tragedy of bureaucracy. Babel fish not required.

Yellow Arch Studios
30-36 Burton Rd
Sheffield S3 8BX


Tuesday July 10th: What Players Want - Understanding Player Diversity (Brighton)

A Games Design Track session at Develop Brighton 

Everyone who makes games is in the business of designing for an audience, but understanding what players want has become increasingly difficult the broader and more diverse the audience for videogames has become. Combining cutting edge psychological research with practical game design techniques, this How To talk puts player enjoyment into a more concrete perspective. Don’t guess at your audience: understand them, and yourself, and learn to make better games.

Develop Brighton
Hilton Brighton Metropole
Kings Road
Brighton BN1 2FU


Further gigs will be added as they are confirmed.

Develop 2018: What Players Want

Develop BannerInternational Hobo’s founder Chris Bateman is at Develop Brighton this year with a talk entitled What Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity. This session is a culmination of more than a decade of work in player satisfaction modelling (not to mention game design experience from fifty published games), and presents a new way of understanding the psychology of videogames in terms of Player Motives. As well as helping clarify effective videogame design, the model can help studios make tough commercial decisions about which audiences they can or should be pursuing with a specific design concept.

For more details, see Chris’ speaker page at the Develop conference website.

Cross-posted from