The impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasing. But what do we know about AI and the ways in which it impacts our lives? Shailoh Phillips and Roel Lutkenhaus are both involved in the AICON-project, part of AiPact — which is one of the Erasmus Initiatives. Connecting scientists with artists and society, it aims to explore the societal impact of new technologies such as AI. Through workshops with residents, they learn about AI and at the same time create icons related to their neighborhood. In a Q&A session, Shailoh and Roel talked about how they got involved in AICON, what they think of AI and what they hope to achieve with the AICON project.
Roel Lutkenhaus works as a researcher at ESSB’s Movez Lab and is the founder of New Momentum, an organization that studies societal undercurrent digital media networks. Using innovative research methodologies, he aims to help institutions better understand the digital world we live in. Shailoh Phillips is an artist, critical researcher, and educator. Her concern is the lack of public understanding about the workings of everyday technologies that rule our lives. The reason she got involved in this project is because she wants to use her critical view to unravel the mysteries of how we interact with new AI technologies. But how do we reveal these mysteries? This is a hard task, because nowadays people fear or don’t understand these new technologies.
A New Kind of Media Illiteracy
According to Shailoh, people don’t even notice that they are using technology at all sometimes. The consequence of the complexity of algorithms is a new kind of media illiteracy. The speed of media technology is progressing, but our behavior doesn’t adapt at the same pace. One of the goals of the project is to make people aware of these new technologies and how we’re able to shape the future by using them wisely. But how do we make people more aware? Roel thinks that the key to this problem is engagement. He says that people can only understand AI when they become more actively involved. AICON wants to establish this through art, because art is an inspiring way to provoke a discussion about topics that people normally don’t talk about. Besides, it allows every layer of society to engage with this complex phenomenon in an accessible way.
“I would be really happy if we could create workshops and events where people play with AI […] and realize like hey, AI behaves differently when I behave differently.” Roel
An important term in the project is ‘value’. The term has many different definitions and implications in our lives. Although implementations of AI are currently mostly concerned with economic value, social, ethical, and cultural value exist as well. How do we make sure that AI and algorithms take these different kinds of values into consideration?
Algorithms Behave as if They’re Alive
To achieve this, Shailoh argues that it is important to have clear definitions of ‘AI’ and ‘algorithms’. One popular definition of AI is that it’s about automated learning processes on large datasets. AI is designed to perform specific tasks that are usually performed by humans. Think of things such as a vacuum robot or Google Alexa. Roel argues that AI is really good at specific tasks, but less capable of lateral thinking. For AI to contribute to solving complex societal issues, it will always need to be combined with human creativity. An algorithm can be seen as a subcategory of AI. For example, Roel uses algorithms to find patterns in data networks that are too large and comprise too much detail for the human eye. Another example where algorithms are used is on social platforms such as Instagram. Based on our behavior, these systems provide suggestions of which accounts you could follow or which product you need to buy. Shailoh argues that algorithms almost behave as if they’re alive: they have agency, they think, they make decisions, they grow, and they change.
“What I find fascinating is that these types of technologies behave in very organic ways […] But it functions more like something alive than any other technology we’ve ever known before. So, I think that all other technologies are artificial.” Shailoh
“I think AI is a container term to describe many different programmatic devices that have been recalled, that have been written, that self-executes, modifies, and is responsive to input and output. It’s no longer just running through rules. It’s adapting to a situation or an environment.” Shailoh
Rules of the Game
An important question that drives this project is ‘what are the rules of the game when designing AI?’. We want to design something that people understand and feel part of, are involved with, a form of responsibility or investment. But how are we planning to make sure the project remains close to our lived experiences? Roel says:
“We, as a society, are never going to agree about how and what the role of AI should be in our society. […] What I do think is really important is that every group has the feeling that they are being heard and that their perspective is acknowledged. If we look at the [toeslagen-affaire] and other AI-related scandals, I think exactly that has been lacking in the past few years.” Roel
Also, people often don’t know how much we control these new technologies, because what’s important to note is that they are made by people. Roel hopes that the project will affect the perception of how much control we have over AI; and that we — societies — are ultimately the ones that determine and control how these AI systems operate and not the other way around.
Towards An AICON For Each Neighborhood In The City
The AICON-project wants to organize workshops where people get to know AI and where they can play with it. The goal is to create art that people recognize themselves in and to make them feel that their questions, concerns, hopes, and fears toward AI are more than welcome. In this project, citizens of Rotterdam work together with AI and together they will create neighborhood icons. Rotterdam is a diverse city, because of all the neighborhoods with different characters. “I feel that there’s so much creativity and potential all over the city,” says Roel. The challenge for this project is to express these different personalities of Rotterdam in the data for AI systems to understand and to create icons that resemble the characteristics of all the neighborhoods.
AICON aims to create societal impact, bringing artists, scientists and citizens together to reflect on these new technologies. The goal is to create awareness, to inform people and to include everyone in the discussion of how we can use technology while considering everyone’s best interests. This interdisciplinary project connects people and wants to co create AI-for-good by connecting all these different disciplines.
Hopefully, we gave you a better insight into what drives our project. Did we get your attention? This is an open invitation. We welcome you to contribute to the project in many ways with either ideas, network, experience, funding, knowledge, and/or inspiration to cocreate human-centered innovation.