Parkour at Tempodrom, Möckernstraße, Berlin, Allemagne, photo by — @beazy

Anthropocentric AI

Considering the field of anthropology in relation to artificial intelligence

I had another conversation today with an anthropologist with a great interest in the work of biologists. This anthropologist argued that an important part of what anthropology could be as a contribution to the interdisciplinary is as a ‘bridge builder’, of course this was said in the metaphorical sense. Anthropologists could be the hyphen, so to speak, acting as a connection point.

It was argued this led to questions about the way education of anthropologists is structured. Why is it so hard to gain an understanding of more technical aspects of a different discipline?

I argued it had to be made easier in a structural manner for those who want to do so. The BA-level anthropology (undergraduate) in Oslo is structured with a Major and Minor. The majority is Social Anthropology modules, and the minority is a 40-group (40 ECTS) alongside 20 free points (20 ECTS). There is only a technical challenge to the structure insofar as one has to undertake these modules separately (apply separately to each module) and then at the end apply to get these modules acknowledged as a 40-group. On the Master’s level there could be a more free distribution, although this would interfere with any wish to determine the direction of the overall master’s programme.

Discipline is supposed to be installed in the student throughout it seems, despite freedom in regards to methods and approaches within a given anthropological ethnographic framework. If one wishes to, literally, learn the language this is lauded as good practice. Should one on the other hand want to learn a programming language or the language of engineers (through numbers) this is somewhat more diffuse on an undergraduate or graduate level.

Does the AI industry have its own language? Does it have a plurality of (programming) languages? Yes.

Competence or understanding of this must often be sought elsewhere.

I do not see much wrong directly with renaming towards STS, innovation, digital qualitative and so on. One could ask whether this is the intended effect an institute for anthropology would want. When does discipline become about brand value? If international publications reproduce a certain kind of anthropologist and this is used as a (prestigious) benchmark to be ranked internationally, then the disciplinary effect of ‘good’ versus ‘outstanding’ (accepted) anthropological work may be appropriately disciplinarian.

Then again I could be very wrong. It is in fact highly likely. In Current Anthropology released in 2020 there is a focus on the topic of ‘Disability Worlds’. It is a topic that is of incredible value to society, understanding an often marginalised group. There are several articles in this edition focused on the digital.

Is there room for anthropologists to do things differently? It seems to be the case.

Still, locally this can be a question for a student when it could be reflected more in the educational experience. The journey studying social anthropology in Oslo has been a joy with the curiosity and breadth of stories from people around the world in each module. I do not argue that these perspectives should be lost, rather the opposite: these perspectives are vital. It is part of what made me want to study anthropology.

Considering artificial intelligence it is very much a human process. The field of computer science talk of bias, yet this is not surprising to anthropologist. The anthropologist Lucy Suchman, having studied human-computer interaction (HCI) at Xerox Lab in the 80’s was inspired by another anthropologist Donna Haraway when she talked of humans in relation to machines. Positioning the human and the values they instill onto, into or from machines is an obvious area of interest.

If anthropology departments think so they may have to rethink certain aspects of their teaching to help young anthropologists understand other disciplines to a greater extent.

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 379. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days.

AI Policy and Ethics at www.nora.ai. Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own. twitter.com/AlexMoltzau