Hip hop, human rights and Sherlock Holmes – Noel O’Connor on how cultural AI helps us learn from the past and imagine a better future

Submitted on Friday, 01/04/2022

Human creativity happens in the uncharted spaces between fields of knowledge. AI can enhance and enrich the process if guided by creative people. Insight prioritises its work with the arts and humanities, whether it’s music, literature, history, social media or the visual arts. April is Insight Culture month and we are taking a deep dive into the cultural projects across our centre.

There is an increasing awareness that the sciences need the arts and vice versa – the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is more frequently expressed as STEAM nowadays, to acknowledge how the arts power and enrich scientific endeavour. Indulge me in the metaphor of the steam engine.

The steam engine revolutionised the world, both industry and society. It brought increased productivity in factories and enabled increased mobility via faster and more accessible transport. It supported the growth of many sectors by opening up markets and allowing for the manufacture of goods at large scales. It was the engine of massive social change. It was the beginning of cities as we know them now.

It wasn’t all good news. Industrialisation changed the nature of work and the skills required from the workforce, with huge impacts on people’s lives. It increased the population concentration in cities to the detriment of rural communities.

It was the beginning of a rapid growth in the burning of fossil fuels. If we could do the Industrial Revolution again, we might make different choices.

Parallels can be drawn with AI and its current and future transformative effects on society. Jobs will change with AI replacing many menial tasks, leaving some people with more time and a better life-work balance. With the development of self-driving cars, mobility is about to change again. Data analytics offers us a better understanding of the environment, management of our cities and communities and associated natural resources like water and energy. It also offers accelerated discovery of new medicines, treatments and better health system management.

We need to cast our minds forwards, however, and consider how thoughtless or passive applications of AI systems might create problems for current and future generations. Problems like the abandonment of large groups of workers whose skills become obsolete; the creation of two tier society of AI ‘haves and ‘have-nots’; increasing isolation as more people engage with technology instead of each other; reliance on biased and incomplete data sets that govern decision making using the same prejudices that have dogged human beings for generation. Let’s not introduce a new set of problems to replace the ones we are ‘solving’ with AI.

Overshadowing all these risks is the existential issue of energy. We must not create a data-driven world that releases as much if not more carbon than its steam-driven ancestor.

This is where human creativity – the arts, humanities and social sciences – become so critical. We know a lot more now about how people and societies work. We know more about what humans need to thrive, rather than simply survive.

Technology is changing the world and we need to ensure that this new industrial revolution is also STEAM-based.

Given the impact of AI technologies on society and our daily lives we need to think holistically and that means going beyond a purely STEM-based approach.

This is by no means a new concept, Leonardo da Vinci understood this and promoted this ““Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

Over the month of April we will be showcasing the work of Insight researchers such as Gerardine Meaney and Derek Greene, who are using AI to study 16,000 digital texts in the British National Library (impossible for a single human to undertake) to learn about public attitudes to pandemics such as cholera, and migration, to see what we can learn from the past to inform the future.

Susan Leavy is bringing a social sciences perspective to ensure diversity in AI development because if it isn’t diverse, it isn’t ethical. Can we ensure that we avoid bias in the design of AI systems? We are determined to find out. Can a more enlightened imagining of our AI future help to address inequalities in our society?

We are using AI to map the global growth of hip hop music and to examine social attitudes in the era of Sherlock Holmes. We are turning the AI lens of traditional Irish music, opera, social media in elections and the availability of minority languages online. We are sailing with the EcoShowboat over the waterways of Ireland to engage with citizens, artists and scientists on projects to celebrate our ecosystems.

Stay tuned to Twitter, Facebook and LinkdIn, follow the #insightculture tag and check in on our Spotlight on Research section all this month to find out more.