In an era of fake news and technology-enabled meddling with elections, the need for information literacy, media literacy, and digital competency is greater than ever. It is now possible to record 20 minutes of a person’s voice, rearrange some text, and replay a completely different sentence that the person didn’t say with a new kind of software. While this kind of technology is not yet available to everyone, the need for critical engagement with technology should be a concern for anyone from policy makers to educators to general citizens.
In addition to the audio modification technology, labs and centers at different universities are currently investigating and improving face modeling video technologies. A research paper about a technology called Face2Face from scientists at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Max-Planck-Institute for Informatics, and Stanford University show how they can modify YouTube recordings of George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Daniel Craig and Donald Trump in real time by overlaying a second person’s facial expressions on top of the original recording. The WNYC podcast, RadioLab, explored this topic even further by investigating how detectable this kind of technology would be to experts and how concerned we should actually be. They got mixed answers from experts and decided to pursue their own investigations while trying to create a fake video of their own.
It can be tempting to disengage and be discouraged at the level of disruption that this can cause. However, we can also take this as motivation to more deeply understand the technological context around us and become more informed and skeptical at the same time. Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, and Simon Adler took the approach to engage the technology that concerned them and came out with an informed respect and wariness while also dispelling the most paralyzing fear that there was now no way to discern the truth. We must continue to wrestle with Pandora’s box and this is another challenge for librarians and digital humanities practitioners to pursue.
The city of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are growing centers for the development of artificial intelligence and a recent Studio 1A program had an interesting panel discussion on the development of the technology and how it is impacting the city. I was struck by the discussion at the end of the panel summarizing artificial intelligence’s drawbacks and benefits. One important drawback was communicated through astrophysicist, Steven Hawking’s, quote from a few years ago that artificial intelligence would outpace humanity in development by the mid-21st century based on our differing rates of evolution. The real strength of computers is their speed of calculation and efficiency, and helped by algorithms developed by people that help them to learn independently, they can develop systems and environments faster than humanity without the input of emotions or ethical considerations. In a way it sounds like a scenario where parents raise children to be efficient and fast without teaching them values or community ethics. That is a world that concerns me.
It was also interesting to hear that one of the benefits of artificial intelligence was “freedom from pain” which sounds like a benefit until you hear how it echos the promise the arch-villian, IT, gave to Meg, the hero, in the classic novel by Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. IT is an evil, disembodied brain that subjugated a whole planet to its will and in order to break down Meg’s resistance, IT promised her that if she gave in she would be free of the burden of having to make decisions and experiencing pain.
There are certainly benefits worth considering for artificial intelligence and knowing about them and how they work is crucial to our future. The benefits discussed in the Studio 1A program include how a city transportation system driven by AI would be more efficient and would be likely to have less accidents. The core technology driving artificial intelligence is algorithms, the steps involved in solving problems and doing calculations. This 1-hour documentary, The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms (available on Netflix or if your institution subscribes to Films on Demand), discusses what algorithms are and shows an example of how they are used to match kidney donors and recipients in the UK health system. This example of artificial intelligence takes a large amount of health data and processes it using algorithms designed to find patterns that will match donors and recipients across the country much faster than existing human-run networks can do.
So what does this have to do with Libraries? The capabilities to find matches across vast stores of data and dispersed communities reminds me of Interlibrary Loan. I wonder what would happen if artificial intelligence was applied to the matching process of libraries lending to one another? What data would we apply algorithms to? What algorithms already exist or could be further developed? What ethical concerns are there when applying AI to this context? What is the role of the librarian in this scenario?
I explained Digital Humanities in the Liberal Arts as best I understand it in a previous post. Now let me introduce you to someone who is an expert in this topic. Rebecca Frost Davis at St. Edwards University in Texas and was a NITLE fellow on Digital Humanities and introduces the state of Digital Humanities in small liberal arts colleges and how to become involved.
Here is what she has to say:
This presentation can help answer the question, What is the Digital Humanities and how does it relate to the Liberal Arts?