By Toby Oliver-Clarke, Editor In Chief, and Bernardo Monteiro, MA Near and Middle Eastern Studies
Wednesday 25th January marked the opening of the SOAS Centre for AI Futures . A joint venture between the SOAS Department for Anthropology, The Helsinki Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities, and Quilt.ai, the centre aims to develop new ways of integrating machine- learning into academia, and equally seeks to place AI within a more global, non-western setting. On the eve of the launch, Bernardo Monteiro and I met with the Co-founders of the centre; Dr Chowdry, Dr Matti Pohjonen, and Sonmath Batabyal, to question them over the aims and implications of the project. Beginning with the ways in which SOAS has influenced the development of the project, Quilt AI founder Anurag Banerjee, told us that “machine learning models have often not had autocritical abilities, SOAS brings that critical theory which can help us in building more inclusive tech models”. This was seconded by Dr Matti Pohjonen of Helsinki who added “ SOAS has unparalleled regional expertise in Africa and Asia, this expertise can help us to build ground up, people centric models of AI.”
Moving onto the wider debate over the implications of AI’s rapid growth, we challenged the panellists on the potential of AI to embed already existing societal inequities and power structures. In response to this, SOAS Alumni Dr Chowdhry told us “the idea is not to replace bias with unbias, AI should increase the researcher’s ability to see how people self- represent online, in this regard, we can better translate the realities of the global south”. In recent times, there has been a concerning increase in the use of AI as a tool of repression and subjugation. The controversy surrounding AI reached its peak with the uncovering of Pegasus spy software. The software, which was developed by the Israeli military, has been used to track the movements and communications of several high profile Journalists, politicians, and activists, including Jamal Khoshoggi, the influential New York Times Journalist who was surveilled using the software before his eventual murder by the Saudi state . Speaking on his personal experience working in Saudi, Banerjee told us that the nature of the collaboration matters more than the partners engaged in it. “It’s the nature of the work that enables power, if the work is empathetic, understanding, and learning focused, you’re actually enabling the creation of new narratives which decentralise power. Once you open up space for new narratives, even in supposedly closed societies, you inevitably see the rise of democracy, after all, one single interpretation is the autocrat’s wet dream”.
“AI undoubtedly has the power to change the material reality of our daily lives, with the potential to revolutionise healthcare, education and the economy, it’s undoubtedly a force that will shape the world in which we live.”
AI undoubtedly has the power to change the material reality of our daily lives, with the potential to revolutionise healthcare, education, and the economy, it’s undoubtedly a force that will shape the world in which we live. Spaces like SOAS have the opportunity to discard their legacies of collaborative colonialism, and instead work towards a world in which we prioritise the creation of inclusive, people led societal models. Dr Sonmath Battybal, Chair of the SOAS Centre for AI, and Lecturer of Anthropology, told us that the centre’s creation is part of a wider to move to integrate digital practices into daily life at SOAS, in the light of the historic hostility between students and the administration, and recent moves to both sanitise and securitize campus, students may question who really stands to benefit from the digitization of campus.
The SOAS Centre for AI Futures is now open.
Photo Credit: Toby Oliver-Clarke.