AI and Communism: Narratives of Intelligent Machines Behind the Iron Curtain

The final workshop on AI Narratives in Central and Eastern Europe will take place on 7 May, 2021 and focus on the histories of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and cybernetics in the Communist Bloc, with an emphasis on Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Date: 16/4/2021


A fascinating community of scholars, thinkers, and creators working at the intersection of technology, automation, and futures emerged in Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War. On the one hand, there were those studying technology as a means of streamlining production and automation in a centralised economy, as well as enhancing citizen surveillance. On the other, there were the dissenting voices that relied on fictional accounts of technological futures to criticise the authoritarian regimes.

The final workshop on AI Narratives in Central and Eastern Europe will take place on 7 May, 2021 and focus on the histories of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and cybernetics in the Communist Bloc, with an emphasis on Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The online workshop consists of an expert panel on AI and Communism followed by a roundtable discussion. The organisers of the “Global AI Narratives: Central and Eastern Europe” programme will be joined by several speakers from the previous workshops to debate what historical visions of AI in the region can tell us about the perceptions of new technologies in Central and Eastern Europe today.

Date: 7 May, 2021


All times indicated are in Central European Summer Time (GMT + 2)

Start: 11:00 AM

11:00-11:10: Opening remarks

Kanta Dihal (CFI, University of Cambridge)

Vít Střítecký (Periculum, Charles University)

11:10 – 12:30 Panel: AI and Communism

Chaired by Filip Vostal (Charles University and Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences)

11:10 – Ivan Havel: IN MEMORIAM (You can still read Prof Havel’s abstract here.)

11:15 – Lukáš Likavčan (FAMU Prague): “Intelligence and emancipation: Six decades of cybernetic communism in Czechoslovakia”

11:35 – Bogna Konior (NYU Shanghai): “Automatic Gnosis: On Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologiae

11:55 – Jędrzej Niklas (Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University): “Rearticulating the State through Data-driven Technologies: The case of National Information System in the 1970s Poland”

12:15 – Q&A 

12:30 – 1:00 – Break 

1:00 – 2:00 – Roundtable: Global AI Narratives: Central and Eastern Europe

Chaired by Filip Vostal (Charles University and Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences)


Ada Ackerman and Emily Bilski (Jewish Imaginaries of AI workshop);

Libuše Heczková (Eastern European Science Fiction workshop);

Bogna Konior (AI and Communism workshop);

Anzhelika Solovyevaand Vít Střítecký (Periculum, Charles University);

Kanta Dihal and Tomasz Hollanek (Global AI Narratives Project, CFI, University of Cambridge)

Finish: 2:00 PM (CET)


Abstracts and Speaker Bios

Panel: AI and Communism

27/04/2021 Update: We regret to inform you of the passing of Ivan Havel, a legendary Czech cyberneticist and AI pioneer, who was meant to speak at our event next week. You can still read his abstract below.


The Problems that Communist Ideology had with Cybernetics and AI in Czechoslovakia

In the countries controlled by the Soviet Union, Cybernetics was upon its appearance sharply rejected “as a bourgeois reactionary orientation based on the vulgar mechanistic mixing of human action and machine function.” But a few years later the attitude towards Cybernetics completely reversed. People were assured that “when any kind of human exploitation disappears, Cybernetics will serve exclusively for the happiness of humankind.” The faithful communist would never admit previous mistakes, so he ascribed them to some  unnamed deviants “who saw in Cybernetics a kind of reactionary pseudoscience, a senseless sensation and an instrument of evil” (all above quotations are real). Similar somersaults have taken place in quite a few other scientific disciplines, especially when they had a Western origin. This is also the case of Artificial Intelligence, which after a period of neglect began to be highly praised even by the top party leaders of our country.

is a cognitive scientist, cofounder and past director of the Center for Theoretical Study, a joint institution of Charles University in Prague and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. He graduated in 1966 from Technical University in Prague and in 1971 earned his Ph.D. in Computer Science from University of California at Berkeley, USA. His current research focuses on the human mind, with a special interest in the first-person approaches. He has published several books of scientific and philosophical essays and dialogues. He is a member of Academia Europea, and serves on boards of several academic institutions and educational foundations.

Automatic Gnosis: On Lem’s Summa Technologiae 

Titled after Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, Lem’s quintessential theoretical work, Summa Technologiae (1964), reveals his preoccupation with long-term techno-biological evolution of humanity. Focusing on artificial life and ‘the breeding of information’ as examples of existential, rather than utilitarian, technologies, this talk explores Lem’s unique reading of cybernetics, and reflects on its relationship to the dominant militaristic model of cybernetics during the Cold War. Lem’s study of cybernetic evolution can be read as a theology of technology, where the inhuman determinant beyond history is not divinity or ideology, but reason, artifice, and contingency. Simultaneously, the talk reflects on the place of the Summa within Lem’s oeuvre, and in the context of the 1960s Communist bloc and communism’s own tautological ideas of political evolution of civilizations. By focusing on Poland’s unique historical position, defined by occupations rather than imperial ascent, as is usual for regions that produce science-fiction, it speculates on the relevance of Lem’s work on artificial life for debates around artificial intelligence today.

is a writer and a scholar currently based at NYU Shanghai, Interactive Media Arts department and the AI & Culture Research Centre. She is interested in the human relationship to and imagination of the inhuman, especially at the intersection of large-scale ecological and technological paradigm shifts. Her work can be found at

Intelligence and emancipation: Six decades of cybernetic communism in Czechoslovakia

This talk is aimed to provide a brief introduction to the history of “cybernetic communism” in Czechoslovakia, embodied mainly in the techno-optimist visions of the scientific-technical revolution by the members of the team of Radovan Richta gathered around the publication Civilisation at the Crossroads (1966). A special attention is paid to the discussions on artificial intelligence in the research group, and to their relevance from the perspective of 21 st century technological changes. Drawing from the present work of Czech historians of ideas Vít Sommer, Jan Mervart and Jiří Růžička, coupled with the insight of decolonial thinkers such as Sylvia Wynter and Walter Mignolo, it is argued that contrary to the Western technological scepticism of Frankfurt school still predominant in the contemporary critical discourses about AI, Czechoslovak Marxism offers an articulation of technicity and reason as critical resources indispensable in formulation of emancipatory political projects.

is a researcher and theorist, writing on philosophy of technology, political ecology and visual cultures. He teaches at Center for Audiovisual Studies FAMU (Prague), and Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (Moscow). Likavčan is also a collaborator of the Digital Earth fellowship programme (, a member of Display – Association for Research and Collective Practice (Prague), and an author of Introduction to Comparative Planetology (Strelka Press, 2019). More info at

Rearticulating the State through Data-driven Technologies: The case of National Information System in the 1970s Poland 

“For Poland to grow stronger and people live more prosperously” – was the official slogan of the new leadership that took power in 1970s communist Poland. Hopes for greater prosperity, moderate liberalization of the semi-authoritarian regime and modernization of the country marked the first years of this decade. As part of those reforms, the government proposed far-reaching use of computers and data processing systems to manage the state and centrally planned economy. Under the leadership of enthusiastic engineers, economists and cyberneticians, the newly established National Informatics Office proposed a system that would collect and transmit data on a massive scale between governmental agencies, factories and other entities. The so-called National Information System (NIS) was a visionary project with the primary goal of reshaping real socialist administration into a state governed with and by data and algorithms. The creators of NIS were clear that the system would not only collect information about the past and present but also forecast and predict future trends and events, becoming a strategic infrastructure for decision-makers.

This paper explores this case and analyses political discourses and narratives used in developing and justifying the creation of NIS. Based on the comprehensive archival research, it raises the question of how efforts to develop data infrastructures become an important element for creating new narratives about the state and socialist state in particular. Following the state theory developed by Joseph Migdal, I will argue that Polish communist officials, experts and scientists developed a very sophisticated vision of changes that data-driven technologies would bring for the statecraft. Through the process of designing and developing those data systems, decision-makers rearticulate purposes, goals and functions of the state. In this paper, I distinguish three narratives that played a key role in this process: modernization, ideologization, and territorialization. Each of them was mobilized to outline a specific function of data technologies to perpetuate and reimagine the socialist state. This case demonstrates that for the modern governments data technology is becoming a critical symbolic tool that brings far-reaching consequences for replicating power. Simultaneously, the numerous inconsistencies and the ultimate failure of the NIS project show how this vision must collide and remain in dialectical relation with the everyday complicated and often disordered practices of the state and its agents.

is Research Associate at Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University. His current research explores the role of data-driven technologies in the operations of state and their social justice implications. Jedrzej previously worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds and London School of Economics and Political Science. He holds a PhD in law (international public law) from the University of Warsaw. Prior to his academic position he was a legal and policy specialist at the Polish civil society organisation, Panoptykon Foundation addressing policies related to data protection, automated decision-making and surveillance.