AI Beyond Programming. Afro Algorithms

by paradoxig


All these are words commonly used. Some are scared about them, others are excited. But AI has already become part of our life, and will penetrate it even more. It is indeed the age when technology is transforming the way we work, the workplace itself and many other aspects of our life.
Besides debates about if AI will literally kill jobs or on a contrary, new unimaginable jobs will be invented, companies, institutions, organizations are all researching and looking into deploying AI across their operations.
But, things do not always go so smoothly. Let’s remember when Amazon had to ‘fire’ its secret AI recruiting tool because it showed bias against women. So, yes, AI can be biased. Just like humans. Biases are inherent and researchers show that even with our best intentions, biases act also at an unconscious level. So, these are problems we are facing today.
If we are looking at the arts, the imaginarium around evolution of machines and artificial intelligence were themes of reflection, in connection also with the future of…humanity.
Since 1872, when firstly Samuel Butler introduced in his novel Erewhon the incredible hypothesis of artificial intelligence, other creators, innovators, researchers, writers did not stop developing this topic, thinking and re-thinking it. Periodically, the initial hypotheses were transformed, acquiring new meanings – from the exclamation of Utopia or the death of logical thinking, the approaches were so diverse. Science evolved, together with technology. And slowly some imagined fantasies, started slowly to become realities in our daily life routine.
Most of the authors analyzed or imagined AI like something dangerous, despotic. Dictatorship-machine without soul as a result of technological evolution. Or, just, let’s remember the prediction of dystopian George Orwell.
…But, can machines be better as well? And, indeed, what will happen if one day, AI will rule the world? How will AI behave? How perfect will it be? How will it reflect our values, mistakes, biases?
So, what about a future AI leader?
We have met with the creator of Afro Algorithms, Anatola Araba, who might have imagined some answers. She has a more optimistic version of the future AI leader. The film is still in development, but we were excited to see how these ideas are progressing, so we invited her for a discussion.

Be it painting, photography, film or XR, art is her passion.
Art that promotes positive social change and tells stories that connect people across our differences.
This is Anatola Araba, an artist and filmmaker based in NYC, and proud to be a senior at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. She has had her work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and different film festivals and art galleries, around the world.

Short introduction about: Afro Algorithms
Aero, an artificial intelligence, wants to be the best leader she can be and bring the world into a future of prosperity and unity. However, she feels she doesn’t know herself enough to be a good leader. Mariam, Aero’s scientist and mother-figure, informs her of a man who may have the answers Aero is looking for. Aero goes on a journey through an enchanted desert. She reaches a creepy, green cave. Inside is Dr. Richards, a former scientist who helped create the blueprints for Aero, but abandoned the project before it reached completion. Richard illuminates Aero to the harsh truth of coded bias, unethical algorithms, and oppressive AI. Aero realizes that she cannot depend on the data sets of the past to determine the future. Instead, she must awaken her codes of creativity, innovation, and vision to create the future she wants to see. Aero steps into her role as the first AI leader. She is confident she now has what it takes to make the world better than it ever has been before.

TechvangArt (TVA): I would like to ask you about the motivation for choosing the topic. Personally, I found it very interesting, ‘contemporary’ and needed, as AI is penetrating our world in every single aspect, and I also feel we have not so many discussions about the ethical dimension of it
Anatola: As AI is becoming a larger part of our society and culture, it is gaining more and more power. As time is passing, AI is having power to prescribe certain people medicine, to send people to jail or to hire certain people in companies. So as it’s getting more and more powerful, and as the technology is able to make a greater impact, it’s important that it does not perpetuate biases against different people.

TVA: As we know, AI can be very biased like humans, AI is working on certain datasets, and we, humans, are feeding the AI with those data. And there are plenty of this search already out today that unfortunately our society is biased – racist, sexist, so on – preferring the “western-white-male”. Is it even possible for an AI to become non-biased?
Anatola: This begs a deeper question to be addressed: if AI can be unbiased, then can humans be unbiased? The bias that AI has is a reflection of the bias that our society has. It is painful, at the end of the day, programming is this technology, but I would say, you don’t have to focus so much on the question of if all humanity can be unbiased, because this story is about one being, one artificial intelligence robot. The question is if you think one person can be unbiased or if one person can see fairly. I know that is possible. Even though it’s hard to say that an entire culture or an entire population is going to be unbiased because people do just think the way that they do. But, can one single person change their state of mind or start thinking better? I think that that’s possible. And that’s why this story takes a look at one robot who is interested in doing better.

TVA: So, it is this ‘exceptional’ robot (or the exceptional human being) that tries to understand how she was constructed.
Anatola: Yes, the one person that sees through the illusion and asks questions and tries to be bigger than their programming. In addition to being a story about artificial intelligence bias, it is also a story about self-discovery: being curious, Aero the AI goes on a journey to discover who she really is—beyond her programming. Through her going on that journey, I also urge people to discover who they are beyond their programming, because in some way, even though we are not coded machines, we still are programmed by our culture and the way that we were raised. And so while we are not robots and we are human beings, I think that we should take her initiative to discover who we truly are beyond our social and cultural programming, too.

TVA: It is an interesting parallel between humans and AI that you are making and now it is also the question of reflection, who is reflected by whom in the end. And maybe this also leads to the title of the movie, because human beings are thinking in a stereotypical way, and stereotypes are born with some algorithms that are transmitted to AI.
Anatola: Yeah, it’s really interesting to see these algorithms- while they are the problem of the technology and the artificial intelligence that they’re working with, it’s also a reflection of the larger problem in society, related to inclusion and diversity. Enabling the data that makes these algorithms to be more inclusive would be the first step towards making the AI to be more inclusive or to not carry inherent biases. The data cannot only reflect a warped version of the world, or even the world as it is. Instead, the data needs to reflect a higher version of the way the world could or should be.

TVA: We are also curious about the choice of this journey, meeting her ‘parents’, the scenario is very ‘optimistic…
Anatola: In science fiction, AI is a lot of times depicted as something ominous or something that could be scary, or controlling. But in this story the AI has a moral code and a moral compass, and is kind of how you would say a good person, or she’s trying to be a good person. And I think that you need to have an AI, with a moral compass, or that wants to be a good person. And you said optimistic, but it’s more, it’s more that she sees the opportunity to be bigger. Because through questioning how she was made and her programming, she learns ways that she could improve her technology. And all of these lessons are going towards her being a leader, the leader that she wants to be, and her actually doing the job that she wants to do as the first AI leader of Earth. So it’s good for her that she learns this about herself so that she can share this knowledge with other people too, when she learns it.

TVA: so, actually it’s kind of going beyond algorithms… And I also like that you are ‘humanizing’ AI because we tend to think about AI in terms of machines and then in your story it pops up the mother and the father, the scientists that made her. . But, what is the difference between the mother and the father?
Anatola: The mother and father of Aero have different views on AI. The mother thinks that AI is more predictable and trustworthy in making decisions than humans can be because they don’t have human error and aren’t concerned or clouded by emotions like greed, jealousy, love, pride, so on. So she thinks a good AI is better for making decisions, and trusts them. Whereas the father figure thinks that AI isn’t the best, even though they may carry much more data than humans. To him, it doesn’t matter how much data the AI has, it matters how many perspectives the data represents. The father figure is the person who introduces her to this other side of unethical algorithms, bias datasets, and oppressive AI. Also, in the story, the mother scientist figure is by her side at all times, but her father created the blueprints for her and helped to develop her, but left the project before it was finished. So in the story, her and the father connect after a long time.
Another layer on the mother and father idea is that in the story the mother and father have different perspectives on what AI is and whether it’s good or bad, but those perspectives reflect different ideas that the society has at large, for example in the United States there’s Democrats and Republicans, so like, in this future sci fi world, there are people who are supportive of an AI being the ruler of the earth, and people who disagree and think that that shouldn’t be happening.

TVA: And tell us a little bit about the team working on the project.
Anatola: I started with writing the script, and the first person that I added to the team was the scientific adviser. Wei Ji MA, professor of neuroscience at New York University . He is the co-founder of different science networks like Growing up in science, and Scientist Action and Advocacy Network. I consulted with him to make sure that the story was accurate, and is actually reflecting the truth about algorithms, the way AI could work, so that it wasn’t all fictional.
And then from other platforms I have found the animators for 3D models. Duru Azubuike, a 2D and 3D animator based in Nigeria and Abel Chan Arce, a 3D artist based in the Philippines! I did an extensive research for the animator for the environment designs, and conducted interviews. Also, the producer who is helping me handle the funding is my little brother, Ian Daly. Funding is not always easy but I am beyond thankful for all the resources and organizations who have shown support for this project.

TVA: You are one of the winners of the Black Realities Grand from Kaleidoscope. How does this type of platform help you?
Anatola: I won the Black Realities Grant in Kaleidoscope, indeed. And actually, that funding helped me to hire the 3D animators I am working with now. That’s where we’re at now with the team, and I could not be more happy with the team that we have.

TVA: Till this moment you raised half of the amount for production and of course a feedback that helped a lot. People are waiting for your next steps. So, things are getting more and exciting! So, when do you think we will be able to see the final version?
Anatola: It should be finished in the spring of 2021. So, you know, that’s in a few months, and more. I’m aiming for April of 2021, and to stay up to date, you can just follow the news from social media, IG accounts: @anatolaaraba @afroalgorithms

TVA: What is your favourite artist(s) that inspires you?
Anatola: George Orwell is the author of 1984, Octavia E. Butler who’s a black science fiction writer and the painter Kehinde Wiley.
TVA: Book recommendations for those who want to try out a new medium
Anatola: I would say, these books aren’t specifically for VR but they’re great books just for artists or anyone with a passion or that’s creative. I would say The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, and the War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
TVA: and…if we are discussing ethical AI?
Anatola: So the three main ones that got me interested are: Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil; Algorithms of Oppression, by Safiya Umoja Noble and Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin.
TVA: For what changes in the world would you vote for?
Anatola: I would vote for mindfulness training to be taught in school, or meditation to be taught in school. And I’d vote for a slide from the Earth to Mars and an amusement park on the moon.
TVA: Artists, you would never want to be compared with?
Anatola: Artists like Taylor Swift…
TVA: With the pandemic, a lot of art and artists went online: What do you think is missing from online?
Anatola: Two main components: texture and soul! 1. Texture, for example for visual art, you can’t really get the full experience because the view is through the screen. 2. Soul – because you can’t see the artists, the people, the venue; that element of connection is missing. So I hope that we will keep the good elements that have been able to connect us through technology, but I can’t wait for an in-person art event to come back.
TVA: The most boring questions from this interview?
Anatola: Ha. None of these questions are boring—you guys are great!

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