Skinput system using button-driven interface.
Skinput system using button-driven interface. (source: Chris Harrison, Scott Saponas, Desney Tan, Dan Morris - Microsoft Research, on Wikipedia)

This week, I sit down with anthropologist, futurist, Intel Fellow, and director of interaction and experience research at Intel, Genevieve Bell. We talk about what she’s learning from current AI research, why the resurgence of AI is different this time, and five things that are missing from the AI conversation.

Here are some highlights:

AI’s place on the wow-ahh-hmm curve of human existence

I think in some ways, for me, the reason of wanting to put AI into a lineage is many of the ways we respond to it as human beings are remarkably familiar. I'm sure you and many of your viewers and listeners know about the Gartner Hype Curve, the notion of, at first you don’t talk about it very much, then the arc of it's everywhere, and then it goes to the valley of it not being so spectacular until it stabilizes. I think most humans respond to technology not dissimilarly. There's this moment where you go, 'Wow. That’s amazing' promptly followed by the 'Uh-oh, is it going to kill us?' promptly followed by the, 'Huh, is that all it does?' It's sort of the wow-ahh-hmm curve of human existence. I think AI is in the middle of that.

At the moment, if you read the tech press, the trade presses, and the broader news, AI's simultaneously the answer to everything. It's going to provide us with safer cars, safer roads, better weather predictions. It's going to be a way of managing complex data in simple manners. It's going to beat us at chess. On the one hand, it's all of that goodness. On the other hand, there are being raised both the traditional fears of technology: is it going to kill us? Will it be safe? What does it mean to have autonomous things? What are they going to do to us? Then the reasonable questions about what models are we using to build this technology out. When you look across the ways it's being talked about, there are those three different factors. One of excessive optimism, one of a deep dystopian fear, and then another starting to run a critique of the decisions that are being made around it. I think that’s, in some ways, a very familiar set of positions about a new technology.

Looking beyond the app that finds your next cup of coffee

I sometimes worry that we imagine that each generation of new technology will somehow mysteriously and magically fix all of our problems.

The reality is 10, 20, 30 years from now, we will still be worrying about the safety of our families and our kids, worrying about the integrity of our communities, wanting a good story to keep us company, worrying about how we look and how we sound, and being concerned about the institutions in our existence. Those are human preoccupations that are thousands of years deep. I'm not sure they change this quickly. I do think there are harder questions about what that world will be like and what it means to have the possibility of machinery that is much more embedded in our lives and our world, and about what that feels like.

In the fields that I come out of, we've talked a lot since about the same time as AI about human computer interactions, and they really sat inside the paradigm. One about what should we call a command-and-control infrastructure. You give a command to the technology, you get some sort of piece of answer back; whether that’s old command prompt lines or Google search boxes, it is effectively the same thing. We're starting to imagine a generation of technology that is a little more anticipatory and a little more proactive, that’s living with us—you can see the first generation of those, whether that's Amazon's Echo or some of the early voice personal assistants.

There's a new class of intelligent agents that are coming, and I wonder sometimes if we move from a world of human-computer interactions to a world of human-computer relationships that we have to start thinking differently. What does it mean to imagine technology that is nurturing or that has a care or that wants you to be happy, not just efficient, or that wants you to be exposed to transformative ideas? It would be very different than the app that finds you your next cup of coffee.

There’s a lot of room for good AI conversations

What's missing from the AI conversation are the usual things I think are missing from many conversations about technology. One is an awareness of history. I think, like I said, AI doesn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of a very particular set of preoccupations and concerns in the 1950s and a very particular set of conversations. We have, in some ways, erased that history such that we forget how it came to be. For me, I think a sense of history is missing. As a result of that, I think more attention to a robust interdisciplinarity is missing, too. If we're talking about a technology that is as potentially pervasive as this one and as potentially close to us as human beings, I want more philosophers and psychologists and poets and artists and politicians and anthropologists and social scientists and critics of art—I want them all in that conversation because I think they're all part of it.

I worry that this just becomes a conversation of technologists to each other about speeds and feeds and their latest instantiation, as opposed to saying, if we really are imagining a form of an object that will be in dialogue with us and supplemental and replacing us in some places, I want more people in that conversation. That's the second thing I think is missing.

I also think it's emerging, and I hear in people like Julia Ng and my colleagues Kate Crawford and Meredith Whitacre an emerging critique of it. How do you critique an algorithm? How do you start to unpack a black-boxed algorithm to ask the questions about what pieces of data are they waging against what and why? How do we have the kind of dialogue that says, sure we can talk about the underlying machinery, but we also need to talk about what's going into those algorithms and what does it mean to train objects.

For me, there's then the fourth thing, which is: where is theory in all of this? Not game theory. Not theories about machine learning and sequencing and logical decision-making, but theories about human beings, theories about how certain kinds of subjectivities are made. I was really struck in reading many of the histories of AI, but also of the contemporary work, of how much we make of normative examples in machine learning and in training, where you're trying to work out the repetition—what's the normal thing so we should just keep doing it? I realized that sitting inside those are always judgements about what is normal and what isn't. You and I are both women. We know that routinely women are not normal inside those engines.

There's something about what would it mean to start asking a set of theoretical questions that come out of feminist theory, out of Marxist theory, out of queer theory, critical race theory about what does it mean to imagine normal here and what is and what isn't. Machine learning people would recognize this as the question of how do you deal with the outliers. I think my theory would be: what if we started with the outliers rather than the center, and where would that get you?

I think the fifth thing that’s missing is: what are the other ways into this conversation that might change our thinking? As anthropologists, one of the things we're always really interested in is, can we give you that moment where we de-familiarize something. How do you take a thing you think you know and turn it on it's head so you go, 'I don’t recognize that anymore'? For me, that’s often about how do you give it a history. Increasingly, I realize in this space there's also a question to ask about what other things have we tried to machine learn on—so, what other things have we tried to use natural language processing, reasoning, induction on to make into supplemental humans or into things that do tasks for us?

Of course, there's a whole category of animals we've trained that way—carrier pigeons, sheep dogs, bomb sniffing dogs, Coco the monkey who could sign. There's a whole category of those, and I wonder if there's a way of approaching that topic that gets us to think differently about learning because that’s sitting underneath all of this, too. All of those things are missing. When you've got that many things missing, that’s actually good. I means there's a lot of room for good conversations.