Culture and AI

A vital component for the development of technology

By Cris Kubli

Since the consolidation of evolutionary theory in the 19th century, many scholars have believed that progress is a linear phenomenon. For it to succeed, one must be as rational as possible, make improvements every time and follow a rigorous set of rules that are known as the scientific method. During this time, certain disciplines such as the biological and physical sciences have been glorified as essential tools for human advancement— all while leaving the arts, humanities and social sciences behind and deeming them less important for human growth.

However, we are reaching a point where the traditional areas that were clearly delineated are blurring, and the once subordinated masteries that focused on the human experience are becoming essential. My background in biological anthropology has catalyzed not only a series of thoughts of possible solutions, but most importantly, a plethora of questions for the human context that lies ahead. For the past few years, we have seen a complete shift in the status quo in all continents when it comes to international affairs, the environment and human social life just to name a few. It was only 30 years ago that the Berlin wall fell, an event that officially ended the Cold War, and it has just been 12 years since the first iPhone came out, introducing a powerful computer into people’s pockets. It is believed that during the course of this century, we will colonize mars, our brains will merge with computers and we will bring extinct species back to life. Will these shifts rewrite what it means to be human? How will we cope with an increasingly globalized society without provocating tensions? Is bearing children selfish and bad for the environment? I would like to believe that individuals that closely monitor our social species such as myself, have valuable input for the advancement of the human condition. In short, social sciences and the humanities are vital not only for the development of technology, but also for the complex problems that we will soon face.

Anthropology is a multifaceted discipline that is naturally human-centric. Nevertheless, it does emphasize the relationships people make with their surroundings, such as other living entities, inert materials and abstract thought. At the forefront of its analysis is the concept of culture, a component that shapes every person on the planet. As indispensable the cultural factor might be, many people are not aware of its importance in interacting with others. For those that do not work in large international corporations or live in a cosmopolitan atmosphere, most people intermingle with a social group that is quite similar to theirs. The social sphere of the average person consists of folks that share a similar socio-economic background, are of the same race and even hold parallel religious and political beliefs. These social bubbles are bursting, especially since the adoption of the internet and the sharp decrease of airline fares. Individuals have begun working with people from outside their states, made friends in different countries and are dating people that come from other continents. Even though some argue that social media has only reinforced our biases, it is true that more people now have access to other points of view than ever before. Coming to contact with ideas that are foreign to the quotidian social bubble can magnify new possibilities and engender innovation. In other words, the inclusion of culturally diverse groups into any discussion can be extremely fruitful.

Some experts maintain that in the future, countries will not be as autonomous as they are now, and we will have a global confederation where all individuals hold the same rights and responsibilities. This sort of social cohesiveness can be seen in the European Union, where in theory all of its citizens maintain the same status and are able to travel and work to any other member of the union. While the idea of a global pan-culture is not new— such as the invention of Esperanto, an artificial language that aimed to unify humankind as a lingua franca, we must still remain vigilant towards this mindset. For the sake of unity, the idea could help people understand each other better and avoid conflict that derives from miscommunication.

As previously mentioned, diversity must persist for innovation and creativity to flourish. Perhaps in the next decades we can all strive to be bicultural while maintaining our mother tongue and speaking the same adopted global language. Yet, I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to keep other points of view alive and ward off homogeneity. To date, there are various cases where languages are facing extinction, mainly due to the dominance of another more powerful culture. Countries like Iceland are fearing a “digital extinction” of their language, mainly because large corporations do not offer devices that can understand their tongue and thus have to interact with technology in English. This identical panorama can be extended to other thousands of cultures that are under threat around the globe, especially in less developed countries.

Very similar to history, which is remembered from the victor’s perspective, digital life will be led by those who control technology. Thus far, digital strongholds like China, the United States and a handful of other countries will survive this revolution, as other cultures are expected to perish in only a few decades. If we are able to understand this upcoming social dynamic, we will need to make technology more inclusive, accessible and diverse. Human values need to be included in the equation.

One way to solve this problem is to include the representation of traditionally segregated groups in platforms like videogames, though we also need to understand the user and their interactions with other humans, machines and the general surrounding. One way of tackling this challenge is to understand a person’s language, idioms, accent, gestures, preferences and overall patterns of thought, all of which are heavily influenced by the culture they come from. These factors can also be traced and analyzed with technology.

Having this concern, I am on a quest to developing culturally-sensitive artificial intelligence that can read and comprehend cultural particularities of a social group. In the future, we may be able to suggest dishes that may be of interest to specific groups that enjoy eating spicy like Mexicans or Indians, or perhaps recommend a movie with a plot that meets the viewer’s cultural expectations. For instance, happy endings with a triumphant hero are common in the United States, but other countries appreciate a darker, more somber ending. Aside from recommending material that already exists, we could also create new things or experiences that best fit a particular taste and produce a blockbuster movie in Nepal. Nonetheless, both suggestions and the creation of new material that are tailored to cultural preferences could be a double-edged sword as it can enclose people even deeper into a bubble of preconceptions.

Meanwhile, introducing novel and different media to people is possible. Spotify, the music streaming company is known for suggesting music that is closely related to a user’s musical taste. Very recently, they released tastebreakers, a specially curated playlist with songs that differ from the usual rhythm and genre that a person typically listens to. This has served as a gentle introduction to new music for many people. This notion can be extended to literature, news feeds, clothing and even cocktails.

For the time being, what I do know is that it is essential to collaborate with digitally-oppressed groups so that different cultures can enter victoriously to the current digital landscape and make their own voices heard and valued.