IP-AI • FEBRUARY 27, 2019
Will Indigenous ways of thinking save AI?
Keoni Mahelona is currently building Te Reo Māori speech recognition tools including text to speech, speech to text, and measuring pronunciation. He attended the March 2019 Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence workshops in Hawai’i. Here he explores the future of AI.
I rarely blog. Not good at it. In 3rd grade I was put into the special reading class. Reading and writing was never my thing, but I always loved math and science and all disciplines derived from those fundamental subjects.
I’m attending an Indigenous AI workshop in Hawaiʻi. I initially thought this was gonna be a brown nerd meetup 😅 but it’s much better than that. The point is to bring together Indigenous and some non-Indigenous doers, makers, and creators to discuss what Indigenous AI is and how it will play an important role in the future of AI for humanity.
It’s probably best to insert my background here to justify why you should even consider what I have to say on the matter. I won’t do that. Those who know the work I do, which are primarily the communities I serve, know me and respect my whakaaro. That’s important here—community and trust. I’ll try to link that in later (again I’m not a good writer)
So the question I have to answer is “what does the future look like for AI?” I’ll answer this question purely based on what I know now from the work I’ve done over the years in science and engineering as a Kanaka Māoli.
I need to preface that I’ll use machine learning and AI interchangeably. Machine learning is a tool that might lead to artificial intelligence, but I don’t think that will happen. Peter Lucas Jones (also attending the workshop) says it best, “Ko te AI tētahi karetao ka taea e tātou te whakakōrero me te whakakanikani. Mā te whakamahi i o tātou rarāunga me ngā kōrero tuku iho, ka tutuki ngā āhutanga o te karetao.” He’s basically saying AI is a puppet and we make it do what we want using our data and knowledge. Puppet. Until we figure out a way to do AI that isn’t only data driven, I don’t think we’ll reach the singularity.
For me, the future for AI is looking bad. Currently the big corporates (the wealthy, the 1%, the colonizers, etc.) are leading the way in AI. The current technology trends show that you need vast amounts of data and huge computational power to achieve anything close to ‘AI.’ The scales at which AI works are financially unreachable by most people, and I find this terribly frightening—corporates have more power in AI than sovereign nations (that’s nothing new in colonial history—profits drove much of colonization including the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom with the illegal aid of the U.S. Military).
Having said that, a small non-profit, Te Hiku Media, is able to deploy its own speech recognition software in the cloud thanks to services like AWS and open source projects like Mozilla’s DeepSpeech. In this case, machine learning is just another tool to help us do what we need to.
The difference between Te Hiku Media’s ‘A’” and Google’s ‘A’” is that ours is created from our Indigenous language—our data. We collected this data. We look after this data with tikanga (cultural practices and values). We will not allow large corporates to have access to this data and use it to exploit us (e.g. serve us ads, sell our language as a service back to us, read our cultural knowledge, etc.). This data is unique to our people, about 600k Māori, the Indigenous people of Aotearoa. We were able to collect this data because the community that shared it with us trusts us. We’ve worked with the community and for the community for the last 30 years. Our data is what makes us unique. It is our own ‘AI,’ the puppet we’ve created to help us achieve our goals and aspirations as a people revitalizing our reo.
This is where data sovereignty—privacy and guardianship over individual data and the data of groups of people—is critically important. If we can maintain that sovereignty, we can prevent the 1% from further colonizing us. But I see the opposite happening. Global corporates like Lionbridge are soliciting Indigenous people to sell them their language—they’ll pay you USD$45 for 1 hour of your time. They clearly have customers in mind as they’re a globalization and localization company. You see companies like Duolingo and Drops being given our languages for the sake of revitalisation and promotion. And while these companies might be good at heart, they make a profit from selling language services. Do those profits make their way back to our communities from which the language data was taken? Or should we be thanking them as the saviours of our people and they can have our data for free… what ever happened to all our land? Of course the biggest insult comes from DNA companies like Ancestry.com. YOU PAY THEM to GIVE THEM YOUR GENETIC DATA, and they have the right to use it as they deem fit. Read the terms and conditions whānau! AI is very much about our data and our knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong. I know society as a whole could benefit when we share genetic data, when we open source knowledge, and when we put data in the public domain. But in a world with so much inequality, racism, genocide, the list goes on and on, clearly only the wealthy are to benefit from these ‘public’ goods and services.
I wish AI could change the balance of power, but I can’t imagine that happening anytime soon. It’s possible that a technological revolution could do the trick. If/when quantum computers (or some computationally equivalent tech) exist at the consumer level, that could give the 99% similar power to the 1%. But history dictates that the technology itself isn’t enough to ‘do good.’ We need laws and ethics around the technology that guides its use for the benefit of all of humanity (and the planet) and not just the wealthy, pale, stale, and males. Chief Sitting Bull made such a keen observation in the 19th century that still stands today, “the white man knows how to make everything, but he does not know how to distribute it.” He said this on reflection of the white man’s neglect for their poor. With all the Western wealth and technologies in 2019, we still can’t solve such a basic problem as poverty.
Western science is only just recognizing how Indigenous knowledge can help our planet, especially in the face of environmental destruction and climate change. I believe how Indigenous people look after their data and knowledge could also help form a framework for AI that works in the best interest of everything contained within our solar system. We personified land and water not because we were hedonistic, demigod worshipers, but because these personifications allowed us to maintain a level of respect and responsibility toward our environments.
I think AI will reaffirm Indigenous knowledge especially around the fringes of science. For example, how are humans affected by the moon, māramataka? There’s a huge body of traditional knowledge around that and while western science might call this new age mumble jumble (thanks hippies!), the data I’ve observed—people around me have cycles of behavior aligning with the lunar cycle—is enough for me to say, hey, how could we measure these behaviors and use them to predict patterns? Machine learning could help us understand from a western perspective some of what we know already know in an Indigenous context.
For an AI to not be a puppet, I think it needs to be able to do something as basic as caring for the poor without being forced to do so. It’s one thing to force people to pay taxes and another for people to fundamentally understand the value and joy in paying taxes in a civilised society. I live in New Zealand. I do enjoy paying taxes because I know it means I get free health care and it helps with the conservation and protection of New Zealand ecosystems. I would not enjoy paying taxes in the U.S. because it funds genocide, colonisation, and the wealthy.
But what creates that difference between being forced to do good and having joy in doing good? I suppose that’s nurture. How we grow up, the people we are surrounded by, and the communities we belong to all come together to shape why we do the things we do. We’re a reflection of our environment, or rather the data we’re exposed to determines whether we want to do the things we do or whether we’re forced to do the things we do. If this is the case, I do not trust the Big Five to build AI, and I do not trust countries like the US and China to build AI. I’d really only trust an AI coming from my own people and the communities of which I am apart. Huh, I’d say the same is true for humans I trust.
Jones, P. L. peterlucasjones. (n.d.). Twitter. Retrieved November 11, 2019, from twitter.com/peterlucasjones.
kōreromāori.io. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2019, from koreromaori.io.
Mahelona, K. (n.d.). Keoni Mahelona - CTO - Te Hiku Media [LinkedIn profile]. Retrieved November 11, 2019, from linkedin.com/in/kmahelona.
Mahelona, K. (2019, February 27). Will Indigenous ways of thinking save AI? Medium. Retrieved from medium.com/@mahelona/what-does-the-future-look-like-for-ai-1ffdff620395.
Mozilla/DeepSpeech: A TensorFlow implementation of Baidu’s DeepSpeech architecture [repository]. (n.d.). GitHub. Retrieved November 11, 2019, from github.com/mozilla/DeepSpeech.
Search results for ‘keoni mahelona’ [webpage]. (n.d.). Te Hiku Media. Retrieved November 11, 2019, from tehiku.nz/search?q=keoni%20mahelona.
Te Hiku Media. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2019, from tehiku.nz.
Keoni Mahelona is currently building Te Reo Māori speech recognition tools including text to speech, speech to text, and measuring pronunciation. Mahelona’s main roles are project management and web development, primarily for koreromaori.com and koreromaori.io. They also built the indigenous media platform tehiku.nz which serves as a digital Marae for Te Hiku Media and the five Iwi of Muriwhenua. Their key contribution is the Kaitiakitanga License which serves to guard Indigenous data and IP from misuse while aiming to create opportunities for the advancement of Indigenous peoples.
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.
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