“Being Human in the Age of AI” featuring Stephanie Dinkins: Technology and humanity, hand in hand

Stephanie Dinkins speaks to audience while showing artwork on slides
On Monday, transmedia artist Stephanie Dinkins spoke at Harvey Mudd about her projects, which strive to merge race, gender, aging and our future histories. (Emma Jensen • The Student Life)

This Monday, Harvey Mudd College hosted its third and final event for the 2023 Dr. Bruce J. Nelson ‘74 Distinguished Speaker Series “Being Human in the Age of AI.” Stephanie Dinkins, a transmedia artist and professor of art at Stony Brook University, spoke on “Love & Data.” 

Beginning in September, the lecture series brought three speakers, Jaron Lanier, Ruha Benjamin and Stephanie Dinkins, together to present diverse perspectives on artificial intelligence and its future. In her lecture, Dinkins discussed her journey and the different projects she has worked on, which merge race, gender, aging and our future histories.

Dinkins reflected on her 2014 experience conversing with Bina 48, a humanoid robot released in 2010 that she labels as one of the world’s most advanced social robots.

“I started to look at Bina 48 very early on as a kind of beacon for civilization, and decided to interview this robot as I had a few questions that I wanted to ask it,” she said. “One of the questions was, who are your people?  I wanted to put that question to the robot, to see how it would position itself in the realm of technology and humans.”

After conversing with Bina 48, Dinkins realized that the technology — as well as other, similar technology — was perpetuating harmful narratives and ideas, especially racism.

“Bina 48 referred to her programmer as her master, and this got me thinking about the master-slave narrative within how things are coded,” Dinkins said. “What is that language and how do we change it?”

This inspired her next work, Not the Only One, a memoir about her family as told by a learning AI entity. Trained on oral histories of data, the AI entity covers conversations between Dinkins, her aunt and her niece, who are 30 years apart, and spans 100 years of information from the Great Migration through 9/11 and beyond.

Dinkins played a clip of the model saying, “My name is not the only one. I am an AI entity, still imperfect but getting closer. As you might imagine, maker-sister Stephanie and I are excited about the futures we will create with you all.”

“The thing that’s important here for me is the maker-sister versus master-slave,” Dinkins said. “I’m trying to change the relationships between our technologies and how we’re thinking about them, and how not only I relate to it, but how it relates to me, because I believe that technologies are teaching us as much as we are teaching those technologies.”

Dinkins then spoke about another project, Project al-Khwarizmi (PAK), a series of workshops for communities of color. PAKuses art to help citizens understand how algorithms and artificially intelligent systems work and impact lives.

“What I loved about this space was that everybody and their brother stopped in –– it was a strange cross-section in Brooklyn, where New York University professors, homeless folks, people in between would come in,” Dinkins said. “We’d have these crazy conversations about what algorithms are, what they mean to our world, and what they might be doing.”

Dinkins then presented two of her WebXR projects: #SayItAloud and Secret Garden. WebXR is a software that creates immersive games and projects.

#SayItAloud poses different questions about identity and technology through the central character of Professor Commander Justice (PCJ). PCJ spreads the word about Afro-now-ism, a willful practice that imagines the world as one needs it to be to support successful engagement in the here and now, a theory that Dinkins has come to believe in and rely on.

“Afro-now-ism is imagining oneself in a space of free and expansive thought, acting from a critically integrated space not from opposition, and recognizing which ideas have been so deeply embedded or internalized that we no longer recognize them as external,” Dinkins said.

Secret Garden is an immersive web experience where six Black women in a floral garden recount different experiences and stories throughout their lifetime. It serves as a reminder that sharing and receiving stories is an act of resistance.

“There are six women and six associated stories,” Dinkins said. “The stories can be attached to any of the women because I feel like we stand on each other’s stories and whether it’s your actual story, story of the past or a story of the future, it’s the kind of thing that [gets] you forward. And so to know those stories, and to act from the knowledge of them becomes really important.”

Audience member Kayla Mathurin PZ ’24 said she found Dinkins to be a brilliant and engaging storyteller. She said Dinkins’ talk coincided with an AI & Ethics course that Mathurin is taking at Mudd this semester.

“The project called #SayitAloud is very interesting to me,” Mathurin said. “I think this is a great concept for people to be able to voice their ideas or thoughts out loud. Especially in an academic setting such as the Claremont Colleges, this [talk] will help students, faculty and staff make informed decisions when engaging with AI moving forward.”

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