Debating the Future of Cultural Narratives in AI

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Some 50 thought leaders, representatives from the United Nations, AI experts, journalists, ethnographers, educators, and students joined an AI, Culture and Storytelling Symposium at Morgan State University on April 23, 2018.

​by Davar Ardalan and Robert Malesky

Can machines understand cultural contexts? That’s what AI researcher Wolfgang Victor Yarlott asked himself several years ago when he was a graduate student at MIT.

A member of the Crow tribe, Yarlott’s pioneering research took place when he was working with the Genesis Story Understanding System at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Yarlott in collaboration with his Professor Patrick Winston wanted to determine whether the system could understand stories from Crow folklore as well as it understood the works of Shakespeare. At first his “audience” was the program itself — he wanted to instill an understanding.

Over the course of his work, he analyzed three collections of Crow literature, created a list of cultural features present in the stories, identified four as particularly important (unknowable events, medicine, differences as strengths, and uniform treatment of entities), and developed a set of five Genesis-readable stories in which those features were prominent. This led to several new elements in the story understanding model. With these new elements, he was able to prove that Genesis is indeed capable of understanding stories from the Crow culture, bringing it one step closer to being a universal story understanding system.

Yarlott was one of 50 thought leaders from a variety of disciplines who gathered to consider “Artificial Intelligence, Culture, and Storytelling” at a Symposium co-sponsored by IVOW and Morgan State University in Baltimore on April 23. Renowned machine learning experts, educators, journalists, technologists, and business leaders from across the U.S. and Mexico joined representatives from the United Nations, the Australian government’s innovationXchange program, and Management Systems International, to engage in conversations about AI as a tool for culturally rich and socially conscious storytelling.

Throughout our daylong symposium, the centrality of storytelling to human existence was ever-present. We are the storytelling species; it is what makes us human. What, then, might the future of storytelling look like when it is combined with emerging AI and machine-learning technologies? That was the focus of our final workshop of the day, “AI and the Future of Intelligent Narrative.”

Jason Farman is associate professor in American Studies at the University of Maryland, and has been writing about mobile media and the value of locative technologies. He’s interested in how mobile can enable polyvocality, and how mobile devices can tell many stories about a single location and override the dominant narrative.

Farman believes we must pay close attention to the platforms we use. “We write as if stories can transfer from medium to medium and that is not how it works,” he said. We should be considering the unique requirements and vagaries of each platform, Farman said, and design for the medium in order to achieve narrative flow. “With mobile, space is a part of the story itself. How we represent a space changes the way that we live in that space. It’s not just the stories that we tell, it is the media through which our stories are told.”

Also speaking at the symposium was world-renowned ethnographer and photographer Miguel Gandert, emeritus professor of Journalism at the University of New Mexico. For the last twenty years Gandert has photographed the people, social rituals, and landscape of his native New Mexico, capturing the sacred and secular practices of Indian and Hispanic people living along the upper Rio Grande Valley.

Gandert discussed the need for a thorough understanding of history. Often in anthropology departments, academics have not been allowed to study their own communities. Now, scholars are encouraged to study their own stories, which offers a very different lens to the field. In Mexico, Miguel noted, journalists in the past were entirely white, but this is starting to change at least in the social sciences and slowly in journalism. “We need to further encourage and allow people to tell their own stories.”

Jerome James, Jr. is the chief strategist and founder of Impact Immersive, a collective of businesses, consultants, industry experts, and educational partners who are applying immersive technologies in diverse ways to explore its possibilities for deployment across industries and everyday life. His goal is to level the playing field in terms of who comes to the VR/AR table. His early background in journalism informs his passion for both sides of the story and for facilitating communication between experts in order to look at things holistically. Using AI at places like the Washington Post frees up journalists to really go in depth on stories that are meaningful and it allows them to fill in the places where AI misses out, James explained. It increases efficiency and depth.

To design meaningful consumer cultural storytelling robots or other apps, we will need to consider carefully and thoughtfully which elements are critical in ensuring the public can access and engage with these new tools.

As it began, the session ended with the group talking about the necessity of inclusion without bias, and the crucial role of maintaining the journalistic precepts of accuracy, honesty, objectivity, and integrity. The outlook was optimistic and the audience was enthusiastic about the possibilities emerging in the new field of AI storytelling.

About IVOW: We are multimedia storytellers & data scientists merging timeless principles of storytelling with AI.

IVOW Founder and Storyteller in Chief

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