MEN(AI)N? Middle East and North Africa AI Narratives


2021-05-05 20:08:46 1875 0

The Leverhulme Centre for The Future of Intelligence (CFI) based in The University of Cambridge has been committed to unpacking Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the potential impact this kind of intelligence can have on our world. Acknowledging the multifaceted nature of AI as well as its potential, CFI have been engaging in research through many programs, each with a different focal point. One such program is the “AI: Narratives and Justice” program, under which the Global AI Narratives (GAIN) project falls. The GAIN project was launched “to learn how different cultures perceive the risks and benefits of AI, to foster new thinking about AI by disseminating AI narratives from underrepresented regions and groups, and to connect local academic experts with writers and artists working on AI.” Through a series of workshops conducted outside of Europe and North America, GAIN engages with local interdisciplinary groups of researchers and practitioners from fields related to AI narratives, such as science fiction scholars, artists, AI researchers, philosophers, writers, and anthropologists, to name a few. To date, CFI has visited four countries for these workshops. In 2018 GAIN went to Singapore and Japan, in 2019 it went to Russia, and on the 13th and 14th of October, 2019 the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) and CFI came together to hold the GAIN Middle East and North Africa (MENA) edition. A2K4D partnered with CFI to map the cultural, literary, philosophical, technical, and gendered histories of AI in the MENA region, among others. The workshop was held at The American University in Cairo, in its campus on Tahrir square, over two days. The campus is a repurposed palace, at the edge of the bustling city-center, full of historic and cultural symbolism in the heart of Cairo. Oriental Hall, wherein the workshop took place over two days, dates back to 1932 and is famous for its grand ceiling that features calligraphy inlay, and golden stalactites. Beneath this glittering ceiling, a group of passionate, talented, and excited scholars and enthusiasts came together to discuss the narratives around AI in the Middle East and North Africa. As morning turned to afternoon, and the sunlight glinted through the windows of Oriental Hall, the roundtable of academics, filmmakers, lawyers, engineers, science-fiction writers, science-fiction readers, artists, and journalists from all over the region came together to discuss the rich narratives of science-fiction, robotics and AI in contemporary MENA, each addressing personal fears and concerns as well as imaginaries and potentialities of this technology. The first day was a closed roundtable discussion and was organized into four panels, which were followed by an informative session from keynote speaker Dr. Nikolaos Mavridis, debunking popular myths around AI. The first day of the workshop was eye-opening and invigorating. The first panel on the morning of the 13th was titled “AI Narratives: Views from the West.” This is where the CFI team brought their research to the table. Tomasz Hollanek, Research Assistant at CFI, interrogated the term artificial, and nuanced it by interrogating the etymology of the word and what it means to have an intelligence that is “artificial.” Dr. Stephen Cave, the Executive Director of GAIN, spoke similarly about the etymology of ‘intelligence’, politicizing the concept and claiming that intelligence is an ideology that both produces specific outcomes and obscures others. Dr. Kanta Dihal, the leading researcher (Principal Investigator) of GAIN, gave a summary of CFI’s work on the Hopes and Fears for AI in the English-speaking world by showing the results of a quantitative study conducted on this matter. This panel was moderated by the Founding Director of A2K4D and Professor of Economics, Dr. Nagla Rizk. The second panel, titled “AI and Popular Culture: Contemporary Perceptions in North Africa and the Middle East,” featured technologists, academics, and authors. Dr. Nikolaos Mavridis, who founded the Interactive Robotics and Media Lab in the United Arab Emirates, is a technologist and academic who spoke about his Arabic speaking robot Ibn-Sina, the first of its kind. Dr. Iman Hamam, Instructor of Film and Rhetoric at AUC, with a keen interest in science-fiction literature and film, provided a comprehensive overview of contemporary Arab sci-fi relating to robots and space exploration, and how these concepts within Arab popular culture were, and continue to be, specifically tied to the political and social context at the time. Dr. Reham Hosny, Lecturer at the University of Leeds and the University of Minia, spoke about her holographic novel, providing an interesting overview of the future of narration. Finally, Yasser Bahjatt, author and founder of Yatakhayaloon: League of Arab Sci-Fiers, from Saudi Arabia illuminated the difficulties and promises of Arab sci-fi that he witnessed as a writer and publisher, as well as the issue of translation. This panel was moderated by Dr. Kanta Dihal. Perhaps the most heated panel was the third: “Intersectionality and AI in the Arab World.” At this panel journalist Mohamed Hamama, managing editor of Mada Masr, and A2K4D Researcher and law student Farah Ghazal addressed the inherent inequality that would inevitably be exacerbated by introducing new technology to a world wherein structural inequality is rampant. They demystified AI, and placed it within the existing everyday of many countries in the MENA. Addressing issues like algorithmic bias, they brought a much-needed tone of gritty realism to a conversation that often tends to veer into the optimistic. In doing so they highlighted the existing dystopia throughout countries in the Global South that the Global North has no interest in unravelling. Also at this panel was Assia Boundaoui, Algerian-American filmmaker, investigative journalist, and Artistic Director of “The Inverse Surveillance Project.” Her work revolves around her community of Algerian- Americans and is influenced by the Arab diaspora and the inequality they face in United States. Driven by the unwarranted surveillance of her community, this led to her “Inverse Surveillance Project,” part of which is an award winning documentary she directed. Assia spoke about a concept put forth by Stephanie Dinkins called ‘small- data’ and the artistic uses of it, as well as the potential for subverting tools of mass-oppression, such as surveillance, emphasizing on the power of gazing back. Dr. Yasmine Moataz, anthropologist and Assistant Professor at the American University in Cairo showcased some of the student work that emerged from an interdisciplinary course she and Ghalia Elsrakbi, filmmaker, and graphic design Instructor at AUC, taught. The course was called Mapping Citizenship, where students from both graphic design and anthropology collaborated to create maps of their own of the AUC campus. These maps were often interactive and reflexive. This panel addressed geographic, socioeconomic, gender- based, and neo-liberal marginalization and was moderated by CFI Research Assistant Tonii Leach. As the afternoon turned to evening, the last of the first day’s panels commenced: “Is there an Arab Futurism? Conceptualizations and Future Studies of AI in the Region.” Speaking on this panel was Dr. Hosam el Zembely, Founder of The Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, who gave the table a history of science-fiction literature in the region, and gave an account of what the Egyptian Society for Science Fictions salons and community were about. Also on the panel was Dr. Muhammad Ahmad from the University of Washington, founder and editor of the website Islam and Science Fiction. The website was created while he was completing his undergraduate degree, which has continuously grown to what it is today. Throughout his career, Dr. Muhammed Ahmad spoke on the representation of the MENA in the West, and the stereotypes perpetuated in pop culture that feed algorithmic bias; he also commented on the Orientalisation of the “other” in much of the sci-fi world. I was also speaking at this panel as a Researcher at A2K4D, where I addressed the question “Is there an Arab Futurism?” by presenting the Speculative Data Futures project, a series of sci-fi short stories that explore the intersections of gender and technology in the MENA region. A recent project from A2K4D, the series features stories from Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, and sheds light on the notion of a futurism in a conflict-ridden area. This panel was moderated by Hana Shaltout, Researcher at A2K4D. Following the GAIN workshop, there was a packed public lecture by Dr. Nikolaos Mavridis, also in Oriental Hall, where he busted seven myths on Robots and AI. On the next day, during the Ninth edition of Access to Knowledge for Development’s Annual Workshop titled: “Artificial Intelligence, Innovation and Inclusion: What Prospects for Middle East and Africa?”, selected participants from the previous day’s workshop came together to open the discussion and engage the public. As the workshop on the 13th was a closed roundtable, the talks on the next day allowed for an open dialogue, as well as engaged the audience in the debate surrounding AI in the MENA, with its potentialities and pitfalls. Speaking on the public panel were Dr. Hosam El Zembely, Yasser Bahjatt, Assia Boundaoui, and Dr. Stephen Cave, to represent the four panels from the previous day. As a participant in this workshop, I was surrounded by experts in so many fields, all coming together to discuss, deconstruct, contextualize and speak on AI in the imagination and in the technology of the region. It was an incredible learning opportunity, and an amazing chance to speak to accomplished and knowledgeable professionals. I had the incredible privilege of contributing to the Speculative Data Futures project during my time at A2K4D, and I felt very enthusiastic to be showcasing a project that I believed in and genuinely enjoyed participating in.