Most of us interact with some form of artificial intelligence every day, whether it’s asking a smart speaker for the weather or assigning shift work or providing app content. But how many of us consider our relationship to these algorithms?
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Noelani Arista, Associate Professor of History and Classics and Chair of the Indigenous Studies Program at McGill University in Montreal. He works with other indigenous scholars to research and develop artificial intelligence models. Adams asked her about the indigenous approach to these algorithms. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Noelani Arista: We work from a different core knowledge base rooted in our communities, the lands and seas of our territories where we live and where we come from. At the core of how we developed it or discussed it with each other is relationality, how we relate to knowledge as part of a longer stream of tradition within our own communities.
Kimberly Adams: This is quite a different way of looking at the data that goes into an AI or algorithm, because what you’re talking about is more relational or humanizing reasoning. Can you explain this concept a bit more and how it shapes what AI can bring?
Arista: Part of my area of expertise is Hawaiian history in the early 1800s, a time when Hawaiians were meeting people from Europe and America. And so the technology that they bring to us, the technology of printing and writing or palapa, or reading and writing, is a real kind of technological transformation in my community. But where most historians assume, or most scholars assume, that writing and printing are something like progress or progress, Hawaiians use both. They use writing and reading to extend their oral practices and print to extend their oral practices, so we still have the movement of orality or performance that is embodied, as in dance or song. And this is a way of telling, preserving and creating history in my community, alongside writing and printing. So what we’re seeing now with computers is, OK, how do we keep our traditions moving through these corridors as technology changes and transforms? So we have a real interest in keeping the sovereignty of our knowledge intact through these transformations.
Adams: For those of us who use AI on a daily basis, from the Alexas in our living rooms to the algorithms that create digital art from our photos, how could it affect us if we didn’t consider our approach to the technology while using it?
Arista: Some of what we write about is, what languages are these technologies available in? If part of our process, as in my community, is to try to encourage the continuation and development of the Hawaiian language spoken in the home, then the common technologies that we might buy that are plug-and-play are not. this is what our community lacks. So our children are engaging with technologies that consistently develop their skills in colonial languages rather than the indigenous languages we are trying to bring back home.
Adams: Can you walk us through an example of AI or technology developed with a relational or kinship approach?
Arista: I can tell you about some that are probably being worked on or some that have probably already been done. First three maybe [augmented reality, virtual reality] the experiences I had weren’t really in English. They were in Anishinaabe, they were in Maori. Being immersed in a 360° shot with virtual reality, but in your native language, in the spaces or countries where these languages are spoken, gives us a different feeling of being in that territory. So the example of Hawaii is an example. When most people hear the word “Hawaii,” they immediately think of paradise, think of beaches, warmth, and a lot of exotic things about Hawaiians, the people, and our culture. But if we were to do an immersive experience, and I think I’d use one called “Piko,” by Hawaiian filmmaker Chris Kahunahana, who spent days and evenings sitting in the shadow of Mauna Kea, riding his bike, allowing a sort of viewer to see the way the clouds pass and rain and how the earth changed during these cycles and how the stars revolved overhead. In the sky, you get a sense of the grandeur the Hawaiians imagined the universe in which they lived. And Hawaiian ancestors navigated that vast Pacific Ocean, Moananuiākea, using stars, wind and rain. Hawaii is a place that named each valley after the winds and rains. And that’s a different kind of orientation to being at home or in Hawaii than most people can imagine. And so using these technologies to give people that sense, even if they can’t read or speak Hawaiian, or rely on translators like me or other experts to bring that experience to them in the language that they’re used to , that’s what technology can give us. I think some people do in Maori where you can move your phone around the landscape and you can go through all the different time periods with pictures. Some do it for climate change, people set up 360 degree cameras that run all year round to see how the swamp or wetland morphs and changes and all the birds and insects and plants and animals that thrive and then die. the seasons pass. As well as this kind of experience that the indigenous people who lived on these lands and waters for generations tried to communicate in ways that were not well received by settler governments or nations. Technology can allow us to really illustrate and bring these things home in an immersive environment. And of course we want to use these technologies to teach our children.
Adams: It is often the case that people of color are mandated or asked to be translators for their communities, which can be exhausting, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you. Does this kind of AI development help relieve some of that burden once it happens so that people who are trying to learn another channel don’t put the burden on you or your community members to do that kind of translation and explanation?
Arista: Well, I mean, I’m glad you framed it that way, because you’re right. So I’d rather flip the script on that and create those technologies for the people who are asking me to do the burdensome work. Something like AI, Alexa, or some chatty personality to practice your language with. What this does for the student is remove the guilt or burden of shame from the exercise regimen. If we have some basic language taught through this medium, then it helps the student to strengthen that language capacity in their own time, on their own terms, and then builds the courage to go out and be social and exercise, because they had such a range of emotions with AI, about which they think may not be judgmental, but we took it upon ourselves.
Adams: Because of colonialism and colonialist presentations of indigenous communities, discussions of technology and indigenous communities are so often framed as the settler community having technology and the indigenous community not. And that’s not accurate. And I wonder how I think when you go out looking for funding you come across that and how do you fight back against the older, more racist narratives?
Arista: Yeah, I actually just finished the editing stage of an essay titled “Intelligence Mali: Sovereignty and the Future of Indigenous Data”. We actually try to answer these questions. And what I’m talking about is that the work that everyone is doing now is almost a metonym for “the future.” And as you pointed out, we always stay in the past. So my response to that was that after working on this task force, the recruitment of these students into the Ph.D. program at McGill in computer science because we need more professionals in our community working face-to-face with communities. And since we don’t have one of each yet, we’re going to want to recruit more people into the programs so they can go into the communities and work face-to-face. That’s the hardest part. And then we’ll have more indigenous people working in computer science who can slowly advance these concepts. I am a historian working with Aboriginal language archives. So I work on that front that people like to discipline as the humanities. And I hold hands with men working in computer science. And we imagine at one point that there will be no discipline like science or humanities. And we will be able to bring back our knowledge that does not see these things as separable. My ancestors who sang their way across that vast ocean, who managed to sail across Moananuiākea using the stars, using their sciences and their luck. For us, they are not silenced into different disciplines.
Adams: One of the questions you’ve asked in your work is: How do we design artificial intelligence systems that recognize that indigenous knowledge is not a thing of the past? I wonder how you personally answer this question.
Arista: In that essay I wrote, I’m kind of saying that for us the past is not the past, it’s the present. The future is made possible by the past. This is why for me history and technology go hand in hand, they cannot be separated. You can’t untangle things for us. They are inseparable. So my formulation of history is relational, seeing these things as relations, and history is the future in Hawaiian.