Moving Beyond the Dominant Metaphors of AI

Published on Mon Apr 24 2023Tarunima Prabhakar

In an event Global AI: Reframing the Conversation nearly two weeks back, we spoke about how Tattle thinks of AI as a tool to respond to inaccurate and harmful content.

TLDR: for us it is always a tool that citizens use. Any claim about an AI that acts as a truth engine- telling us whether a claim or media item is true or not- doesn't make sense to us.

We aren't Luddites, but the vision of the all-knowing pervasive AI epitomized in science fiction novels like 'Ex Machina' or 'I-Robot' isn't the vision of machines we work with. It seems apposite to emphasize this with the brouhaha around generative AI one sees these days.

Sure generative AI is exciting, interesting and brings its risks. But we could do with a fresher set of metaphors to think about its effects, beyond just singularity and existential risk.

Let's talk about the metaphors that guided Uli, which included an ML feature for detection and redaction of abusive contents. These were conceptualized by Cheshta Arora.:

Uli "could be imagined as a quilt-making process, one that reflects intimate, gendered histories of suturing, tailoring, fabricating, stitching, patching, and moulding the world around us...Quilts and quilt-making are forms of a cloth-based narrative, art which is part of many cultures. Like this tool, quilts are often made collaboratively, and are both personal and communal objects that empower and celebrate."

Thread, needle, sewing machines... these are all technological artifacts used in quilting. But in the case of kantha quilting, these tools enable individuals to express creative ideas, work collaboratively and mend. Far from presenting an existential risk, these technologies enable people to build something that protect others. And they surface a different set of concerns- around sharing of technology, overlaying of work...

We need metaphors that move past the doomsday scenarios that induce panic by implying that some tech precludes agency by citizens/users. In her 'Rant about Technology' Le Guin reminds us that technology is "how a society copes with physical reality". It is the active " human interface with the material world." But people's material realities are different, and the interfaces that will emerge out of the engagement with these realities will be different. Far from the deterministic narrative of AI taking over, there is ample room for AI to evolve differently. In fact, this is an inevitability. But we need to do our best to find metaphors beyond Hollywood and 'hard' science fiction. With Uli we looked to quilting rooted in traditions of Indian craft. And there are plenty in human cultural history, varied as it is.

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