Artificial Intelligence: Making AI in our Images - Savage Mind

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sally Applin

Hello! I’m Sally Applin. I am a technology anthropologist who examines automation, algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the context of preserving human agency. My dissertation focused on small independent fringe new technology makers in Silicon Valley, what they are making, and most critically, how the adoption of the outcomes of their efforts impact society and culture locally, and/or globally. I’m currently spending the summer in a corporate AI Research Group where I contribute to anthropological research on AI. I’m thrilled to blog for the renowned Savage Minds this month and hope many of you find value in my contributions.

There is so much going on in the world that it is challenging to choose a single topic to write about—floods, fires, hurricanes, politics—as anthropologists in 2017, we are spoiled for choice. However, as a warm up for the month ahead, I thought I’d start with a short piece on automation and agency to frame future pieces which will address these topics. The following is a letter I wrote yesterday morning to the House of Lords in the UK, who issued a call for participation on the governance and regulation of Artificial Intelligence, a topic with great importance to me. If done well, AI will benefit many, and if overlooked, or done in haste or without forethought, there could be catastrophic outcomes from poorly designed algorithms, and automation and limitations that permanently alter society as we know it.

The oncoming onslaught of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not something that will happen to humanity, but rather something that we ourselves will construct, shape, and enable in the world. Some of us may have more power than others in its implementation and deployment of AI. It is for this reason that is astute for those shaping the governance of our future to both gather data and understanding of concerns surrounding AI, and to take action to protect not only their constituents, but broader humanity and global society—for as we all now realize, digital networks and digital automation is broadly reaching and the smallest digital intent can have unforeseen global repercussions.

There are two points that I would like to personally contribute to for this call, the first being Human Agency and its preservation, and the second being that of Social and Cultural awareness when automating decisions that will impact ethics. Human agency is our capability to make choices and decisions from the options that unfold before us at each point in time. As we move through the world, and as our circumstances change, so do the options from which we may choose to make any given decision. When these are automated, and in the case of AI, severely estimated and automated, the results can restrict human freedom and movement—in any class of society. Furthermore, because these decisions are automated, the cultural and social aspects of each individual as well as our cultural groups, does not become considered. This can undermine peoples’ agency as well as their identity. I refer to ethnicity and agency within a country’s national identity as part of a discussion on ethics, values, and customs within a culture, as well as individual agency and cultural expression within that context. An AI from Michigan in an autonomous vehicle with embedded ethics would suggest one type of cultural values, which may be out of place in Great Britain, where people express their cultural values in different types of vehicular ethical behavior. What does it mean to automate cultural choices and expressions in one area, and deploy those to other locales? (See Applin 2017: )

Automation currently employs constructed and estimated logic via algorithms to offer choices to people in a computerized context. At the present, the choices on offer within these systems are constrained to the logic of the person or persons programming these algorithms and developing that AI logic. These programs are created both by people of a specific gender for the most part (males), in particular kinds of industries and research groups (computer and technology), in specific geographic locales (Silicon Valley and other tech centers), and contain within them particular “baked-in” biases and assumptions based on the limitations and viewpoints of those creating them. As such, out of the gate, these efforts do not represent society writ large nor the individuals within them in any global context. This is worrying. We are already seeing examples of these processes not taking into consideration children, women, minorities, and older workers in terms of even basic hiring talent to create AI. As such, how can these algorithms, this AI, at the most basic level, be representative for any type of population other than its own creators?


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Sally Applin, Ph.D. is a Senior Researcher based in Silicon Valley, examining the changing relationship between humans and algorithms, and the impact of technology, AI, and automation on culture. Dr. Applin is an Associate Editor of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, a member of IoT Council, a think tank for the Internet of Things (IoT), and an Executive Board member of the Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer Foundation. See my Homepage and Research and Publications Follow @Anthropunk on Twitter.