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The anthropologist asking critical questions around AI

The anthropologist asking critical questions around AI

AI is the 21st century steam engine, so how do we manage it? Tech-anthropologist Genevieve Bell talks about the rise of AI and its impact on the future.

Genevieve Bell at Xerocon 2018

Genevieve Bell at Xerocon 2018

What is it going to feel like when technology is making decisions you used to make, or where you are good at?

Genevieve Bell was at a bar in Silicon Valley 20 years ago when a man approached her and asked her what she did.

“I am an anthropologist,” says Bell. “I study people.”

He asked why.

“Because they are interesting,” replied Bell, who has a PhD in anthropology at Stanford University.

She told him she was a professor.

The next day, he rang her at home. Bell did not give him his number but learned later he called all the anthropology departments in the Bay area to ask if they have a red-headed Australian in the staff.

The operator at Stanford University gave her number (“bad privacy,” says Bell, smiling now at the recollection), and they met for lunch.

He introduced her to people who convinced her to leave the academe and work for a technology company.

That company was Intel, where Bell rose to become vice president, and head of sensing and insights.

Today, Bell is a distinguished professor at the Australian University, and remains a senior fellow at Intel.

Speaking at Xerocon 2018 in Brisbane, Bell recalls her move from the academe to technology,

When she made the career leap, the internet “was still dial up” and companies like Google and Amazon have yet to exist.

She remembered what her mother, also an anthropologist, told her that one is “morally obligated to service, work on behalf of others so the world is a better place than when you found it.

“I came to realise companies like Intel and the others in Silicon Valley were building the future,” says Bell, who had joined her mother on field research in the central and northern Australian aboriginal communities.

“I do not want that future to be built just by engineers.”

She had an inkling what could happen, as her father was an engineer. “It will work really well and none of us would like to live in it.”

At the same time, she felt she needed to do something different.

She spent the next 18 years in Silicon Valley, and went back to Australia over a year ago.

Across her career, Bell explains there were key questions she sought to answer, such as how do you make what is technically possible but also what people wanted? She is also looking at new technology, how they work, what people do and do not do with them.

She applies these questions to artificial intelligence.

AI, she adds, is a constellation of technology, and needs data.

“We have to teach machines deep learning, they need to have sensors so they know the world around them.”

“AI is a bit like innovation,” she tells the audience at Xerocon.

“Everyone says it, but if you ask what it means, they says it is a good thing but will have a different definition.”

“AI is the 21st century steam engine,” she says.

The steam engine changed the way we thought about time, space and doing business, she says.

AI will do the same thing. “It is the beginning of a change, it is not the end. It is not a game changer, yet, it is the beginning of it.”

She says another way to look at AI is the chart by the World Economic Forum on the rise of the 4th industrial revolution.

We are now entering the 4th wave of industrialisation, she says. What stood out for her in this chart was the absence of people, it only just had tools and technologies.

Yet, she says, every technology wave had changed humans and the jobs they do.

She says the 4th wave will be characterised by cyber physical systems. “How do we manage them?”

She says there are questions that needed to be asked as these systems are developed.

For instance, will the autonomous vehicles and robots, currently discreet, be running around with complete free will?

Someone has to decide what the rules are around the application of these technologies, and address the question of assurance, she states.

“We have the systems, and given them a set of rules. How do we know this is safe, what is the moral equivalent of the L plate?”

In California, these cars have bumper stickers saying ‘This is an autonomous vehicle’.

“How do you know it is safe for your business, for your city?”

“How do we measure these systems?”

I do not want the future to be built just by engineers

Genevieve Bell

Over the years, most of the ways new technology was measured was whether they made us more productive or efficient. “Is that the measure we want for new technology?

“What is it going to feel like when technology is making decisions you used to make, or where you are good at? That is going to create a degree of anxiety.”

“I’m interested in building the future, not look at the future,” she explains.

Thus, when she came home to Australia, she took this focus to academia.

“We have electrical engineers and computer engineers,” she says. “What is next?”

Bell says she is building the next academic discipline, on a new applied science around the management of artificial intelligence, data, technology and their impact on humanity.

She is doing this as head of the Autonomy, Agency and Assurance (3A) Institute, launched in September 2017 by the ANU in collaboration with CSIRO's Data61.

“Build the future you want to live in,” she says on what drives her in her current endeavours. “You have to put a stake in the ground.”

Divina Paredes attended Xerocon 2018 as a guest of Xero

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