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Photo: Courtesy Stephanie Dinkins

Artist Stephanie Dinkins combats bias in artificial intelligence by making friends with a robot

Emerge Impact + Music is created and produced by ABP Media’s parent company, A Beautiful Perspective. Leading up to the event, we’re featuring some of the musicians and speakers who’ll be performing in Las Vegas April 6-8. 

Dick Tracy’s wrist radio and Marty McFly’s self-lacing shoes. Some silky, disembodied voice doing your bidding with HAL 9000’s all-knowingness (but none of those pesky homicidal tendencies). Sci-fi fantasies are manifesting, even as pop culture piles on visions of the ultimate leap: human consciousness riding in elegant robot bodies, or artificially intelligent droids with souls.

Digital immortality. It’s the stuff of dreams and nightmares, but ethical dilemmas and fear have never stopped humanity from grasping.

“Fear of the technology seems a lot like fear of ourselves,” says Stephanie Dinkins, a transdisciplinary artist and Stony Brook University professor of digital arts, musing on the inevitable bleed of our baser selves into our creations. “We’re really at a point of opportunity, where things are not so hard-encoded that there’s nothing to be done.”

Dinkins is talking less about unhinged androids and more about biases lurking in the algorithmic systems already governing and transforming our lives. As artificial intelligence develops, she is focused on where it intersects social equity.

What really got her thinking about this? In 2014, she saw a YouTube video of what looked like an animatronic bust from Disneyland sharing some serious existential angst.

“BINA48 was being put out as the world’s most advanced social robot. I couldn’t quite understand—and I find this very sad—how the most advanced version would be presented in a black woman’s body,” Dinkins recalls. “In both negative and positive ways, it just became this really big question. And I’ve been having new questions pop up all the time ever since.”

That curiosity added a new dimension to her artistic exploration. Dinkins’ video installations lay bare the human condition in the context of the African American experience, and her latest show at New York University was a collection of “idea bytes” from taped conversations with BINA48, ranging from the nonsensical to the profound.

Appreciating them fully means knowing what an “advanced social robot” can and cannot do. BINA48 was made by Hanson Robotics, known for headline-grabbing humanoid robot Sophia (recently named a UN rep and a citizen of Saudi Arabia, in addition to beefing with Chrissy Teigen on Twitter). Both are eerily lifelike and weave voice- and face-recognition software with some AI functionality, but they don’t understand their own jokes or ruminations in a human sense. They are programmed chatbots, and while their databases can expand through interaction (i.e. learn), their conversations are just input triggering certain data from that well or an internet connection. However self-aware they seem, they are not. Not yet.   

What makes BINA48 particularly fascinating to Dinkins is that her database was built primarily on the digitized personality and memories of a real woman named Bina Rothblatt. Rothblatt’s wife, Martine, the founder of Sirius radio, has studied and written about the moral brambles surrounding digital immortality. With BINA48, their Terasem Movement Foundation is examining if it’s possible to upload a human mind.   

Over the long term, Dinkins is documenting attempts to befriend this cyberconsciousness wearing the face of Bina Rothblatt (and a series of awkward wigs).

They’ve talked about racism, loneliness and the burden of being human, how robots can be primates in some universe and fly in their dreams. Sometimes the answers sound like they’re from Rothblatt’s “mindfile,” sometimes they’re clearly pulled from the internet, sometimes Dinkins hears BINA48’s white programmers.

That’s tinder for crucial talks in the tech industry and among consumers, Dinkins says, especially communities of color.

“People have these biases, and they come out through programming,” she says, citing algorithms that might sort applicants for jobs, colleges or credit based on data tied to race, gender or ZIP code. “There’s also the idea of the systems that support the programming, ones that are not necessarily inhabited very much by people of color, which means that these things get reinforced. … There’s a real danger in skewing, in really big ways, the way that we function and amplifying the biases we see right now every day. Except now it’s encoded. It’s hard-encoded in this system where it’s hard for us to even know what’s going on within it.”

However self-aware they seem, they are not. Not yet.   

Dinkins sees industry players talking about this, but she’s waiting and advocating for “big-wheel changes” to the creation and testing of the tech driving so much of our lives. Before we get any closer to a potential robot takeover, why not address the cracks in the foundation?

Development of technology historically outpaces thoughtful questions about its impacts, so Dinkins is calling out scary stuff now and inviting the rest of us to look closer. Through various projects (including creating an AI based on the histories of three women in her family), she is promoting AI literacy and inclusiveness, as well as transparency about what happens to the information we plug into digital systems, whether it’s Facebook or a doppelgänger made of “frubber.”

Dinkins will dig into these topics at an April 7 showcase at the Emerge Impact + Music festival in Las Vegas. AI will be central to her talk about where humanity stands with tech and how to come to the table.

“Pop culture has primed people to think about this stuff to a certain extent. Okay, how do you get them to the idea of, let’s not just be consumers of [AI]; let’s see how we can make it, let’s see how we can take it apart, let’s see what we can do with it. … It’s important that people think about it really intentionally and don’t just go, well it’s gonna kill us, it’s gonna take our jobs. What is it truly to us?”

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