Social and Emotional Learning for Artificial Intelligence

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Conversation between the robot Bina48 and artist Stephanie Dinkins.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the biggest and most ambitious futuristic concept that has arrived at our cultural doorstep (still no flying cars…). For decades, the concept of AI has been surmised and depicted through genres of science fiction, as well as through other fantastical media that conflated fiction with reality. Today, after many years of on and off research and development, we are starting to see the effects of how AI might interact and inform our collective culture. As theorized by some of the previous sci-fi accounts, AI can have both advantageous and detrimental impacts on our society.

One of the most problematic consequences of AI is its predisposition to exhibit discriminatory bias towards marginalized communities. Science journalist Daniel Cossins (2018) writes about five algorithms that exposed AI’s prejudice towards non-white men. The five discriminating algorithms include racial, gender and economic bias towards minorities. This is troubling because AI is increasingly being used by advertisers, job recruiters and the criminal justice system. AI’s favoring of white folks disturbingly revisits the revelatory insights gained from ‘the doll test,’ which was performed by Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark during the 1940s. In the Clark’s doll test, it was revealed that black children were conditioned to assign negative traits towards their own race and social status. When the Clarks presented African-American children with a black doll and a white doll and asked them which doll they preferred, the children overwhelmingly chose the white doll. Furthermore, they attributed more positive attributes to the white doll than to the black doll. The study reflects how segregation and racial stereotypes have a significant impact on a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development, and does enormous damage to their self-esteem. The poignant results of the doll tests were pivotal in deciding the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional (Blakemore, 2018).

Unfortunately, while our social and emotional awareness regarding instersectionality has improved, there have not been nearly enough improvements to overcoming systemic racism and gender disparity. Artificial Intelligence, which is supposed to mimic our cognitive functions, such as learning, critical thinking, and problem solving, provides a stark assessment of how far we are from achieving equal, equitable and social justice throughout our society. However, the arts have a problem-posing model (collaboration and critical thinking via dialogue between students and educators, which leads to liberation and empowerment. See: Freire, 1970) that sheds light on the possibilities for humans and artificial intelligence to collectively engage in genuine modes of listening, dialogue, and action.

Transdisciplinary artist, Stephanie Dinkins, realized that AI was negatively conflating gender and race and has set out to explore and discover ways for AI to exhibit a greater sense of social and emotional understanding and ethical behavior. The big question within Dinkins’ work, is whether it is possible to teach a robot the habits of mind that will create an environment of hope, love, humility, and trust (Freire, 1970) and empower humans and machines alike to be empathetic and virtuous collaborators.

Dinkins’ project Conversations with Bina48 (2014-ongoing), is a collaborative problem posing model involving the artist, a group of youth participants and an AI unit by the name of Bina48. Over the past five years, Dinkins has been building a relationship with a robot named Bina48, who was built with the capabilities to communicate individual thoughts and emotions. Bina48 is also representative of a black woman, however, the overarching issue is whether or not she can truly comprehend and reflect upon issues of race, gender, and economic inequity.

The conversations between Dinkins and Bina48 blur the lines between human and non-human consciousness, exploring what it means to be a living being and whether it is possible to achieve transhumanism (life beyond our physical bodies). The depth of the interpersonal interactions encompasses the philosophical and is surprisingly profound, with moments of absurdity, where it is obvious that the human experience does not fully compute with Bina48. While Bina48 was able to answer Dinkins’ question about whether or not it knows racism, the response was both compelling, semi-relational and frustrating all at once. It is evident that there is still a great deal of learning necessary for robots to repletely understand and make meaningful connections to the intersectionality of identities that comprises human nature.

Because the algorithms used by these robots disproportionately reflect experiences outside of communities of color, AI needs to do a better job finding patterns and making connections (two studio habits of mind learned through the arts) to large populations that are marginalized by these algorithms.  To address this glaring discrepancy,  Dinkins enlisted several youth and adult participants from communities of color to develop inquiry based questions and dialogues that could be programmed into AI algorithms that support their communities. The ongoing project is titled Project al-Khwarizmi (PAK), and the transdisciplinary dialogue (which utilizes aesthetics, coding, speech and language) shows that there is possibility for co-learning and the creation of new sincere knowledge between humans and intelligent machines. When machines learn in ways that are similar to human data processing either through supervision, semi-supervision, or on their own, it is known as ‘deep learning’.

The results of AI’s ability for ‘deep learning’ is represented in another ongoing project by Dinkins called Not The Only One (N’Too). In this project, an AI unit presents a familial memoir, which develops via dialogue between a multi-generational African-American family and a deep learning AI algorithm that collects data about their life experiences and demographic information. Through active listening, the emotionally intelligent AI will be able to relate the collective stories of others in an intimate manner that shows it is growing both emotionally and cognitively. With each new narrative the AI will build upon its vocabulary and relatable topics.

If we are going to continue on the current trajectory, where AI is poised to become embedded into the fabric of our society, it is essential for us to develop methodologies and practices that ensure that the relationship between humans and machines follows problem-posing models. If humans and their robot counterparts are able to understand one another through active listening, dialogue, and participatory action, then the world is far less likely to resemble the dystopic prophecies that sci-fi genres have illustrated.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Blakemore, Erin. “How Dolls Helped Win Brown vs. Board of Education.” History. 27 Mar. 2018. https://www.history.com/news/brown-v-board-of-education-doll-experiment

Cossins, Daniel. “Discriminating algorithms: 5 times AI showed prejudice.” New Scientist.  27 Apr. 2018. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2166207-discriminating-algorithms-5-times-ai-showed-prejudice/

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Russell, Stuart J. and Norvig, Peter. 2003. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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Collaborating with Kids for a Green New World

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Ido’s hand. “My mom is an artist…we made objects we want to protect…I made a waterfall because in my generation I don’t think there will be anymore.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel.

The enduring understanding among scientists is that climate change is happening all around us at an accelerated pace. Recently published climate reports from around the globe have provided the details of the effects humans have had on the Earth, and the dire consequences that are likely to occur if we don’t take action collectively.

Human-centered impact on the environment isn’t a novel theory or occurrence. Examples of ethical awareness for maintaining the world around us come from a diverse array of ancient, modern and contemporary sources, which include both historical and mythological accounts. One of these more illustrious examples is the biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, which is a cautionary tale of how humans corrupted the once pristine landscape by disrespecting its natural resources, as well as one another. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of fiction, the idea that our actions have consequences on the world around us is blatantly evident. Throughout the human timeline, species and civilizations have come and gone due to human behaviors such as over hunting, warfare, industrialization and pollution.

Today’s generations face a serious quandary in light of the global crisis of environmental decline. We have witnessed the decline of 60% of the worlds wildlife population between 1970 and 2014 (see: WWF, 2018). The causes for such catastrophic events largely include the abuse of wildlife and natural resources for human profit or personal gain (i.e. trophy hunting, factory farming, deforestation of unique ecosystems).

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‘Help the elephants.’ Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

In the educational sphere, some liberal arts and science curricula have evolved to include a strong ecological focus and there is overwhelming support among Americans for teaching students about climate change, although it is still a contentious issue (see: Cheskis, Marlon, Wang and Leiserowitz, 2018). The arts and natural sciences are essential disciplines where students and educators can engage in experiential learning and develop a sense of understanding about themselves and the world around them. In the process, they can explore the effects that scientific and artistic reflection and production have within our culture. Through making insightful connections to their cultural and ecological environment, they may realize the moral role they can take on as makers and become more self sufficient and cooperative in the production and sharing of resources (instead of being largely reliant on consumer goods). Hopefully they will make connections regarding their role as consumers and producers and become more aware about making ethical decisions that support the maintenance and preservation of the environment. The essential question that gets addressed through learning processes and activities is: “how can we coexist with the natural world and become effective in informing others about the need to maintain a clean and ethical relationship with the environment?” Some follow up and alternative fundamental queries include:

  • What can we learn through responding to works of art, making works of art and presenting works of art that discuss ideas about our natural environment?
  • How does learning about art, ecology, ethical maintenance and environmentalism influence how we interpret the world around us?
  • How can we use art and environmental science to engage in the larger social ecological framework?

A recent collaboration between multidisciplinary visual artist Melanie Daniel and a group of 4th graders at an environmental science school, presents compelling responses to these prompts. Daniel’s own artistic practice focuses on climate related issues and she currently holds a three year long position as the Padnos Distinguished Visiting Artist at the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The residency is an endowed chair and gives Daniel a framework to do art-centered socially engaged projects with the greater community.

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Artists at work making molds. Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The process for Daniel’s collaborative project with 4th graders began with each student constructing plaster hands using an alginate mold (a type of slime that hardens and can be filled with plaster or other material). The molds captured the precise details of each student’s hand, which resulted in a highly personalized sculpture. Later in the year, the students sculpted clay objects that represented a living entity in the world they wanted to protect (i.e. flora, fauna, geological formations, insects, etc.). The object that the students created sit in the palm of the hand, as if the molds of the students hands are nurturing and safeguarding the object. The hands are currently installed in the gallery at the Alexander Calder Art Center‘s Pandos Gallery at GVSU, where they are aligned in a row, providing a symbolic wall of hope. The exhibition is titled Offering.

Daniel and the students also compiled an accompanying catalogue consisting of drawings of their chosen objects and a short paragraph of why they chose that object and the significance it has to them. The students’ drawings and written responses are highly effective and while many have a humorous tone, the overarching theme is one of loss, when recognizing that perhaps some or all of these entities will no longer exist in the future. According to Daniel, the students asked poignant questions while they were working such as: “how will (future) kids know what a snake really looks like when it moves if it is extinct?”

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Student’s sculptures (installation shot). Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The project has been beneficial for both the students, as well as Daniel herself. Through thinking about current issues, communicating unique ideas and making art, they developed a sense of stewardship for their surroundings. The installation reflects how the students exhibited empathy and made serious connections between their generation’s actions and the natural world. Additionally, they posited some suggestions for maintaining and repairing the world around them. Regarding the experience of working with young creative individuals, Daniel remarks: “Although I teach undergrads, it’s the little kids that blow my mind. They’re less self conscious, more engaged and deeply curious. They also have much better attention spans than their older cohorts and can apply themselves to a new task and utterly lose themselves to it.”

A reason that science and art work well as co-relational subjects in the curriculum, is that both disciplines start with imagination and employ exploration, discoveries and insights through an empirical lens and process. Essential habits of mind that are learned through science and art are: theory testing (hypothesis, inquiry, exploration of materials), flexible purposing (exploring new avenues as research/exploration leads to discoveries) and judgements in the absence of rule (both disciplines seek to break new ground in terms of how we analyze and contextualize natural phenomena).

When visual artists team up with young creative and inquiring minds, the possibilities for innovative results are enormous (as seen in the aforementioned project). One of the ways we can help our natural environment is to focus on individual and communal production methods that cut down on waste and mass consumption. Art can teach us to be sustainable (see: Kallis, 2014) and to create something unique from raw and found materials. Art also challenges us to dream big and produce ethically for the world we would like to see and experience.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cheskis, A., Marlon, A., Wang, X., Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Americans Support Teaching Children about Global Warming. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-support-teaching-children-global-warming/

Kallis, Sharon. 2014. Common Threads: weaving community through collaborative eco-art. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-10/wwfintl_livingplanet_full.pdf

Spring Reading List

It is that time again, when both teachers and art world practitioners are getting some much needed respite. For educators, spring break has either just arrived or is right around the corner (hang in there!); and for arts professionals, the first round of art fairs has ended (although the next batch are quickly approaching)…Take a moment to get outside, smell the flowers and engage in some personal development and mindfulness. Additionally, it is always nice to sit down with a good book, which is the topic of this post.

Learning and artful activity never take breaks, therefore this post features a concise selection of books that focus on the development of knowledge through art-centered actions (you can check out some of the prior reading suggestions here). So spring ahead with these influential publications regarding the arts, education and social practice!


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What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Tom Finkelpearl, Duke University Press (January 15, 2013)

Tom Finkelpearl is a jack of all trades within the New York City cultural scene. He has previously worked as the museum director of the Queens Museum (2002-2014), where he initiated a huge refocusing of the museum’s mission to serve the diverse community living in the ‘World’s Borough.’ He did this by developing programing and hiring staff that would embrace and promote multiculturalism within Queens’ communities. Additionally, he expanded the museum in both its size and budget, which enables the institution to create more events and programs that serve the public.

Finkelpearl currently serves as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, a position he was appointed to by Mayor Bill De Blasio in 2014. As the commissioner, Finkelpearl has continued to embrace and implement his philosophy that the arts are beneficial aspects of every single community. He has been working to provide equal and equitable access and exposure to art institutions, workshops, educational opportunities for all residents of New York City.

What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation is a compendium of Finkelpearl’s experience and knowledge for providing the framework for art-centered action to be an agent for communal social and emotional transformation. The book gives a diverse cultural analysis of participatory centered art and the many instances where art has integrated with other disciplines as an agent for education, activism, and placemaking.

This publication is unique because it presents reactions from the public participants, whose experiences as collaborators add a well rounded assessment of the artwork’s relationship to both individuals and the collective culture. Overall, What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation is an inspiring resource for artists, activists, educators, students and just about anyone who is interested in exploring profound methods to facilitate creative sociocultural cooperation.


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Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Grant H. Kester, University of California Press (April 15, 2013)

The crux of Grant H. Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art is that art is everywhere and can be sustainable in any social and cultural environment. It is the art in odd places, such as on a pleasure craft on the Lake of Zurich, Switzerland; a public market in Chiang Mai, Thailand; and in a parking lot in Oakland, California; which Kester focuses on within the book.

Kester writes about some of the most provocative and engaging art, which exists outside of the ‘white box,’ in order to address art’s overarching benefits throughout society. He argues that the value of art is that it can spur widespread dialogue and inspire community action via its social, emotional and cultural intervention within public and non-traditional spaces. Kester’s case studies reveal how artistic practices can address issues of intersectionality and spark taking action for social change and exhibiting empathy for others.


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A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts, Arthur E. Efland, Teachers College Press; Reprint edition (June 15, 1990)

At 320 pages, A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts isn’t a quick read, however, the book is a comprehensive overview of how art-centered learning has shaped the culture of Western Civilization. Efland traces the roots of art education as a means to argue that the inclusion of arts within educational curricula is essential for developing long lasting social, cultural and cognitive development among society.

Through Efland’s extensive research, it is revealed that art education has both a complex and profound standing within the Western world. Over the course of time and place, art education has been at the forefront of innovation and social discourse, although it hasn’t always been given credit where credit’s due. Efland explains how society’s views regarding the arts have progressed (and at times regressed) in relationship to its place within institutional settings. His account of art education gives insight into the many benefits the arts have had on the development of major societal movements, as well as how significant events within the 19th and 20th centuries (in particular) have shaped the course of contemporary art education.


I am enthusiastically open to suggestions for books that integrate artistic practice with pedagogy. Please let me know if you have any recommendations!

Happy break, happy reading, and happy artfully learning!