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Beth Singler shares more on her research into robotics and AI ahead of IP EXPO
Tuesday 31 July 2018
Ahead of IP EXPO Europe 2018, we spoke with Dr Beth Singler, Junior Research Fellow in AI at The University of Cambridge to delve into what inspired her research as well as her take on the concern around AI and robotics replacing human jobs....
What inspired your decision to study AI and robotics?
I’ve always been what many would call a ‘geek’. My earliest memories of ideas about AI are of Lieutenant Data in Star Trek Next Generation, which I watched pretty much ‘religiously’. And then I went to university where I actually studied religion, building on my interest in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our world. I focussed on an anthropological approach, studying humans being humans, and began to focus my research more on understandings of science and technology and how they were woven into people’s worldviews, whether they called them religions or not. And then, with my current postdoc, I began to look specifically at AI and robots, thinking about how we imagine the future and our future selves. This work involves engaging with people who made, discuss, imagine, and interact with AI and robots. It involves paying attention to online conversations and to science fiction. I can quite legitimately spend an afternoon watching the latest Blade Runner, for example! So it’s not a bad job!
Your short documentary Pain in the Machine won the 2017 AHRC Best Research Film of the Year Award, tell us about how this topic fits into your wider research?
This film came about because I applied for a specific film scheme at my university, Cambridge Shorts, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust. The aim was to foster interdisciplinary research: bringing together scientists with arts and humanities scholars such as myself. I worked with Dr Ewan St John Smith from the Pharmacology Department at the University of Cambridge who studies pain, but mostly with naked mole rats, never robots! Combining our research and delving into the philosophical questions around pain and our conception of what it is to be human really just made sense. Since then I have worked with the same filmmakers, Little Dragon Films, again. We’ve continued to deal with topics that could be considered core to our understandings of humanity – friendship, ethics, and consciousness – with Friend in the Machine, Good in the Machine, and Ghost in the Machine. All but Ghost are finished, and that is due in October of this year. Each film involves experts in the field of AI as well as a fiction narrative and clips from science fiction films that touch on the core theme. They have been well received and are excellent tools for public engagement and getting the audience involved in the conversation around the questions raised.
Do you think concern around AI and robotics replacing human jobs is justified?
Absolutely. And more than ever we need to understand that how the human is understood is socially constructed and contextual. As human intellectual labour is replaced by AI we will need to redefine what the human is ‘for’ in a much more conscious way. We have been comfortable with the human being ‘for’ work for an extremely long time, and as work is removed we will need new narratives of human flourishing. Our dystopic fiction has already taken us into the future as a form of thought experiment, but one with a negative bias – for fiction can only really be engaging when it contains conflict. But for our real future we need to be looking now for a way towards a utopian future for as many people as possible.
How do you think AI will impact our economy in the next ten years?
As an anthropologist rather than an economist I can only make general statements about the impact of AI. But I think one very useful thing to do is to look at communities where automation has already had an impact and where we can interact with living people who have had to live through it. A prime case study would be the post-mine community of South Wales, where lack of purpose for the men who once worked in the mines has had an impact on every demographic. Or we could look at the contemporary shift towards attention economy ‘employment’ and examine the lives of Youtubers who have found new purpose in a form of work that is not physical, nor overtly intellectual, but entertainment based. Anthropologists examining these social shifts due to technology need to be listened to, because they do not reduce the post-work problem into ‘simple’ equations of supply and demand but actually listen to the people impacted and pay attention to the messiness of human life.
What perception changes do you think we’ll see towards AI in the coming years?
The dystopic may well decline as AI becomes more advanced and less obvious. I think fears about ‘killer robots’ might decline as interacting with AI in a distributed, non-embodied, form becomes more ubiquitous. There is still danger in this however. I would be concerned about the impact of ‘invisible killer robots’ – algorithms that are not as obvious as a Terminator walking down the street but which make decisions based on either biased data or the privileging of some over others due to priority service plans, which may well have a harmful effect on people’s lives, and without obvious means of recourse. Perhaps there will be pushback against such control – we’ve already seen anger at the impact of the entanglement of AI, social media and politics on elections. But people need to ‘see’ what is happening in order to be outraged. And my fear is that the biggest change in perception will be a shift to not recognising when something is being done by AI at all.