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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Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art

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Nicolas Henry, Kazuko Shiriashi in her forest of poems, Tokyo, Japan, from the series The Playhouses of Our Grandparents. Courtesy of Nicolas Henry

The best known secret to learning is _____________.

You might have filled this blank in with a number of responses such as (and not limited to) experience, persistence, building proficiency, being a good student, or having a great teacher(s). All are true, however, this post will focus on something that is often forgotten or neglected in certain contemporary school environments: learning through play.

Learning through play essentially means that learning should be fun, engaging, and challenging, realized through the games and activities we all enjoy. Play enables us to think, create, and interact in a very natural and cognitive manner. One of the many benefits of play is that students eagerly develop social and emotional bonds as a result of collaboratively playing with their peers. Play enables us to communicate with each other more repletely and understand each other with greater empathy because teamwork is a large part of many games. Other essential habits of mind developed through playing include: persisting (the greater the challenge the sweeter the reward), managing impulsivity (developing metacognitive strategies to effectively solve a problem), and taking responsible risks (play embraces uncertainty and allows for calculated judgements in the absence of rules). Play is so developmentally important because it allows children to design a world uniquely for them and carve out a place where they can feel independent and in charge of their outcomes. In the classroom or school environment, play makes learning uniquely relevant to students, while strengthening their metacognitive, social and emotional, and practical (play is embodied/kinesthetic learning after all) skills. After playing or engaging in playful learning, students can reflect on what went well, what was most challenging, and what they would improve upon or change for the next time. Learning without didactic imposition is the crux of playful learning. Students learn far more by actively doing than they do by sitting and listening to a lecture.

Contemporary art embraces the element of play very efficiently. Artists seek out creative strategies to address aesthetic and conceptual issues in order to create engaging and entertaining works of art. While making art is serious undertaking, any artist will tell you that if it becomes too serious they’re not having fun anymore. Unless you’re painting by numbers, all art making combines a playful engagement with materials and subject matter. Some artists like Slow Art Collective (mentioned in an earlier post) fully utilize play in order to construct meaning in collaboration with the viewer. In fact, their work is largely conceived with the expectation that visitors will interact with it and construct new knowledge through explorations with a wide variety of materials.

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Nicolas Henry, Woo Kwong Hou doing his Tai-Chi on the rooftops of Hong King from the series The Playhouses of Our Grandparents. Courtesy of Nicolas Henry

No matter how old we are, the most wonderful thing about play is that it helps us all express our inner child. This is apparent in Nicolas Henry’s series of photographs The Playhouses of Our Grandparents, which enables participants (and viewers) to reflect on the joy of playful and dramatic storytelling. Henry traveled the world in order to meet older individuals (elders of the community) from a variety of cultures, and collaborated with them on building elaborate ‘playhouses’ that symbolize the spirit of imagination, innovation, independence, and cultural identity. In his description of the project, Henry declared: “Inside every one of us, lies the youthful spirit of a child who revels in creating with everyday items around him, a world invented entirely by his imagination.” Henry achieves this by encouraging his subjects, elders of the community, to envision their ideal playhouses, which are then collaboratively built to reflect the objects, memories, and experiences from their past and present. These playhouses are reminiscent of the forts that children imaginatively create with a variety of found materials. Looking at these playhouses, it becomes clear that, to paraphrase Walt Disney, if you can dream it, you can do it. Similar to childhood forts, these playhouses gave the elder participants a sense of sanctuary, protection, and social and emotional expression. It is so important for all of us to have a special place where we can feel safe to take creative risks, and express our autonomy from the confines of the physical and emotionally demanding world we live in.

Artists Miranda July and Nina Katchadourian also create playful works of art that break away from the mundane and stressful routines of daily life. Katchadourian’s work, realized through unique and surreal pairings of materials and subject matter might seem absurd at first glance. After all, her most famous work includes an ongoing series of in flight projects (Seat Assignment, 2010-ongoing), including bathroom selfies called Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, in which the artist uses bathroom materials such as toilet paper, toilet seat protection covers, shower caps, and sanitary napkins to dress up like subjects in Dutch and Flemish portraiture. However, for each series of art she makes, Katchadorian carefully conceives a complex set of rules and balanced relationships for quotidian conditions. The results are playful and imaginative encounters with the banal and uninspired facets of life. Katchadorian utilizes play to reveal the creative possibilities of finding inspiration, excitement, and awe in everyday life.

In the online series Learning To Love You More (2002-2009), artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher posted playful prompts to engage participants (anyone who visited the website) in an artful game where they had the creative freedom to create unique visual, audio, or written responses. Learning To Love You More was structured enough to make art-centered projects accessible for a wide range of individuals who may or may not have any prior artistic experience. In other words, it was important for no one to feel left out. Each question addressed a specific and simple activity such as feeling the news,  re-enacting a scene from a movie that made someone else cry, drawing a constellation from someone’s freckles, giving advice to your past self, or making a poster of shadows. Participants were also prompted to do assignments that built off of other participant’s responses. The artists even gave participants the option to create their own prompts and give a demonstration of the prompt (via text, video, sound, drawing, photography, etc) so that others can follow along and participate. The success of these assignments was the fact that they were very specific, yet left open ended enough in order to encourage a multitude of choice, which liberated each participant’s creative endeavors. July and Fletcher’s participatory based art project unleashed individuals’ potential to create symbolic and empathetic responses to the human condition. The participants in Learning To Love You More frequently took calculated risks that made them open to vulnerability, made creative judgements in the interpretation of the rules, and expressed their unique personalities in a metacognitive, social and emotional way. This project feels quite similar to the games many of us played as children where we assigned ourselves roles and situations that reflected the way we perceived ourselves in the world and guided us to our desired personal experiences. Learning to Love You More exemplifies the benefits of play as described by psychologist Peter Gray (Gray 2011):

“(1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.”

When play is supported in an art-centered learning environment, students make invaluable explorations, discoveries, and insights about themselves and the world around them. Play gives us the necessary freedom to construct our ideal social, emotional, and constructive experiences. When imagination is given free reign, we start to realize that materials are everywhere and compelling subject matter is simply dependent upon our playful and artful interaction with each other and the environment.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Elkind, David. 2017. The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books. 

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents.”  American Journal of Play, v3 n4 p443-463 Spr 2011.

Sobel, David. 1993. Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 

Intrinsic Value in Contemporary Art Collaborations…and Learning Through Them

I am thankful that I was recently introduced to the work of the Slow Art Collective through Louisa Penfold, who writes Art.Play.Children.Pedagogy. The Slow Art Collective creates interactive installations, which are based upon “the slow absorption of culture through community links by creating something together and blurring the boundary between the artists and viewer.” They go on to state that their work “is a sustainable arts practice, not an extreme solution; a reasonable alternative to deal with real problems in contemporary art practice.” Slow Art Collective’s collaborative art work is very much inline with several major theories in education such as social and emotional learning, embodied learning, cross-disciplinary STEAM, and the Reggio Emilia approach. I want to focus on the latter approach in relation to the Slow Art Collective’s work.

The Reggio Emilia Approach was founded in Italy after World War II. It focuses on nurturing pre-school and early childhood student-centered learning environments, and is based on Constructivist educational methodology.  philosophy is based around these principle beliefs:

  • Children must have some control over the direction of their learning
  • Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, and observing
  • Children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world that they must be allowed to explore.
  • Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.

Within the Slow Art Collective’s installations, there are a multitude of tactile environments that engage children (and adult visitors) in a collaborative materials based exploration, where the viewers actively contribute to the aesthetic and conceptual design of the art work.

While the visitor moves throughout the various components of the installation, they are partaking in an exchange of value, not in the monetary sense (which is often unfairly/unfortunately tied to art), but in the sense of appreciating the way creative experiences connect us and help us to become better members of our community. Art that is collaborative goes beyond the traditional artist/viewer relationship and forms open-ended art works, where viewers become participants and experience the work of art through a combination of physical and intellectual engagement. By having collaborative components, the artists are sharing some control over the direction of the work with the viewer/participant. Additionally, the work is made replete through the viewer’s touching, moving, listening and observing. Furthermore, these installations create a safe space where visitors form relationships with each other by sharing in a cooperative creation of an art work, as well as a profound individual and shared experience.

The playful (yet serious) approach to art making promotes both self and collaborative expression, and teaches us that it is the process –the work we put into relationships and working together creatively– that matters the most.

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience Pt. 2

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection 2012, Union Square, New York, NY. Courtesy of More Art

Krzystof Wodiczko’s artistic practice transforms public spaces into sites of collective memory and historical memorialization. He has worked with diverse populations including the homeless, war veterans, and victims of global atrocities such as Hiroshima. Wodiczko’s work is often temporal and doesn’t physically alter the space. Rather, he creates a metaphysical alteration of our perception of events and public spaces by projecting poignant imagery and narratives directly on well known buildings, statues, or other iconic structures in urban environments. His installations are largely politically charged and powerfully engage the viewers to reflect on their own trauma and relationship to both past and current events.

For example, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, comprised of videos of fourteen U.S. Veterans talking about the effects that going to war has had on them. Wodiczko projected the video on the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square so that each participant’s image embodied the form of the sixteenth President.

Wodiczko’s work presents a great opportunity for educators to discuss the personal ramifications of historical events and iconic sites. Public art works such as Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection supports social and emotional learning (SEL) because it shapes social awareness, self awareness, and relationship skills by bringing a diverse population together inside the park to share in a moment of empathy. In making these poignant projects, Wodiczko relies on a strong collaborative relationship built on trust and engagement from both the subjects of his work and the viewers. Another major aspect of Wodiczko’s work is bringing an awareness and contemplation of the social and emotional connections we have to public spaces. In conjunction with Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, More Art developed a curriculum for middle school classrooms that explored the historical and contemporary functions of Union Square and the role of public spaces within the community at large.