An Urban Mohawk Woman Who Loves Her Cyberpunk Avatar Envisions The Future Of AI
Skawennati makes art that addresses history, the future, and change from her perspective as an urban Mohawk woman and as a cyberpunk avatar. She attended the March 2019 Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence workshops in Hawai’i. Here she explores the future of AI.
While I wouldn’t call myself a Trekkie, I am a Star Trek fan. My favourite series was The Next Generation. I love how Star Trek portrays the future: filled with space-faring human/alien half-breeds and higher intelligences, yet governed by the Prime Directive, which privileged knowledge exchange over slavery or other resource extraction. Mr. Data was the show’s portrayal of Artificial Intelligence. Housed in a humanoid cyborg body (some would say he’s an android—but not I), he could do many things that only the computers in previous iterations of the show could do, such as scan a planet for life forms.
The majority of my ideas about AI come from fictional books and movies like Neuromancer and The Terminator. Most recently, I’ve become fascinated by the portrayal of the AI from the Netflix series Travellers. The Director, as It is known, is revered by the people of the future as if It were a god. It (and it is emphatically an “It”) only shows up in computer code (although sometimes, if absolutely necessary, It can inhabit a child’s body). Through the omni-present surveillance devices of contemporary life, as well as the time travelling agents sent to present-day Earth, The Director is able to see all. Its job is to figure out what events in the past should be altered or avoided so that the Earth does not become the barren wasteland it is in the future where It is from.
The AIs of today are much less exciting than the AIs of fiction. As Nick Heath of ZDNet says, in an informative article called “What is AI? Everything you need to know about Artificial Intelligence”: “AI is ubiquitous today, used to recommend what you should buy next online, to understand what you say to virtual assistants, … to recognise who and what is in a photo, to spot spam, or detect credit card fraud.”
I am happy that Gmail’s AI filters out my spam, and my bank sends me a new card when some thief gets their hands on my number. For these AIs I am thankful. I do sometimes wonder, however, what we might be missing out on. It seems like the AI-makers think that it’s a small price to pay if one real email gets lost in the spam. But what if that is the golden email?
I recently met an artist who is using AI to create paintings (reading their blog reminds me of how little I know about real-life AI and machine learning. Sorry folks.). They are using a machine-learning algorithm with multiple discriminators to generate unique works of art. What I understand from that, as well as from a conversation I had with them, is that the AI is composing the image, selecting the colours, determining the style, and ensuring technical merit. “But that’s all the fun stuff!” I said to them in dismay. And why in the world do they want to put artists out of work?
You asked us what the future looks like for AI.
For one thing, I don’t think AIs will look human, the way the AI child looks in the movie AI. I think we are smart enough to avoid that folly. I think they’ll probably become more like avatars that we each customize, like a visual Samantha from Her.
Also, I don’t think AIs will want to be human. I read a great quote (that I forgot to cite) that says that “humankind has a massive ego thinking that we are the center of the universe and everything around us must desire us in some capacity”.
Which brings me to this workshop.
I am excited by the idea that we are engaging with AI on our terms, as Indigenous people. I am excited that a platform is being built such that other, non-Indigenous folk might listen to what we have to say on this topic.
The strength of an AI—its very raison d’être—is that is can solve complex problems. Perhaps it can solve the problem of social injustice. Maybe it can figure out how to bring about a non-violent revolution.
I have been reading about the history of the confederation of the Haudenosaunee. The three tenets of the Great Law of Peace, which is our constitution, were peace, unity and the good mind. My ancestors had in place a complex system of consensus in order to come to decisions. I wonder if we could feed that info to the AI?
At the very least, we need to program the AI with the Thanksgiving Address, the oral tradition that reminds us of the familial relationships between the earth, water, sky and all the things living there. Most of us Indigenous folk have a similar teaching or ceremony. That ancient message is very similar to Star Trek’s message. As Kyle Sullivan and Katie Boyer of Trekpertise say, it is meant to “remind us to show respect and reverence for all life, and forms of intelligence, whether natural or artificial.”
Evans, C. (2016, November 4). Artificial intelligence in Star Trek. Redshirts Always Die. Retrieved from redshirtsalwaysdie.com/2016/11/04/artificial-intelligence-star-trek.
Heath, N. (2018, February 12). What is AI? Everything you need to know about artificial intelligence. ZDNet. Retrieved from zdnet.com/article/what-is-ai-everything-you-need-to-know-about-artificial-intelligence.
1. Nick Heath, “What is AI? Everything you need to know about artificial intelligence,” ZDNet, February 12, 2018 <zdnet.com/article/what-is-ai-everything-you-need-to-know-about-artificial-intelligence/>.
2. Charles Evans, “Artificial intelligence in Star Trek,” Redshirts Always Die, November 4, 2016 <redshirtsalwaysdie.com/2016/11/04/artificial-intelligence-star-trek/>.
Skawennati makes art that addresses history, the future, and change from her perspective as an urban Mohawk woman and as a cyberpunk avatar. Her early adoption of cyberspace as both a location and a medium for her practice has led to groundbreaking projects such as CyberPowWow and the Skins workshops on Aboriginal Storytelling and Digital Media. She is best known for her machinimas—movies made in virtual environments—but also produces still images and sculpture.
Her works have been presented in Lithuania, Italy, Germany, New Zealand, Hawaiʻi, the United Kingdom, China and across North America in major exhibitions such as “Now? Now!” at the Biennale of the Americas; and “Looking Forward (L’Avenir)” at the Montreal Biennale, and are included in both public and private collections including the National Bank of Canada, Global Affairs Canada and the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art.
Born in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, Skawennati is Kanien'kehá:ka of the turtle clan. She holds a BFA from Concordia University in Montreal, where she resides. She is Co-Director, with Jason Edward Lewis, of Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), a research network of artists, academics and technologists investigating, creating and critiquing Indigenous virtual environments. In 2015, AbTeC launched IIF, the Initiative for Indigenous Futures; Skawennati is its Partnership Coordinator.
The Indigenous Protocols and Artificial Intelligence (IP-AI) workshops are founded by Old Ways, New, and the Initiative for Indigenous Futures. This work is funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), Old Ways, New, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Concordia University Research Chair in Computational Media and the Indigenous Future Imaginary.