TO DESIGN THE A.I. OF THE FUTURE, ANGIE ABDILLA IS LOOKING TO THE PAST. TENS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS INTO THE PAST.
Angie Abdilla looks to the past to design the technology of the future.
IN 1843, AN EARLY SETTLER HAPPENED UPON A FISHING MACHINE BUILT BY INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS.
Made from plant fibre and springy sticks, the device would sling snared fish up onto the bank of Victoria’s Murray River. It required no handling by the operator, instead utilising the energy of the flowing river. The settler’s assessment of this invention wasn’t exactly glowing. “Lazy blackfellas,” was the gist of it. “Won’t even work for their dinner.”
Flash forward 176 years and white people are finally paying autonomous machines some respect. It makes you wonder what other innovations they may have overlooked. “There are so many examples of Indigenous technologies that are still relevant today,” says Angie Abdilla, a Sydney-based Trawlwoolway woman. “Technologies that are innately socially and environmentally sustainable.” Spinifex resin, she says, which was used as glue, was the world’s first thermoplastic. “And the boomerang is the first example of asymmetrical lift; the helicopter was later developed from it.” David Unaipon, a Ngarrindjeri man, even conceived of the helicopter decades before the first one was invented. “Because he was Aboriginal, he never got the chance to build it.”
Abdilla thinks it’s time the broader world took notice of the ancient ways of thinking about technology. In 2015 she set up Old Ways, New, a technology design consultancy that incorporates Indigenous knowledge into the field of emerging technologies. Based in the heart of Aboriginal Sydney, Redfern, Abdilla and her team work with traditional custodians to examine the cultural practices, rituals and ceremonies of Australia’s Indigenous nations and work out how they might form the basis of new technologies, including artificial intelligence. The stated goal is to make sure the world’s First Peoples are leading the next technological revolution. But there is a deeper purpose behind the project, too, with even higher stakes.
“AI is at a crossroads,” Abdilla says. “It could either support people and the environment – or, if left unchecked, lead to any number of nightmare scenarios.” Such nightmares could include anything from autonomous weapons to psychotic AI, but we needn’t cast our minds so far into the future to see the effects of badly administered code. Race and gender biases have already wormed their way into many of the algorithms that invisibly shape our lives. In 2014, Google’s advertising software was found to show highpaying job ads to more men than women. Similarly, U.S. court software has been caught flagging African-American defendants as more likely to reoffend than they actually are.
Though efforts are being made to correct against algorithmic biases, it’s possible that prejudice has been baked into the system from the get-go. Part of the problem, Abdilla says, is that the Western relationship with technology is essentially that of master and slave. (The term ‘robot’ even comes from the Czech word for ‘forced labour’.) This mindset has economic benefits, but it can also limit the types of technology we can imagine. To this end, Abdilla and a number of other First Nations people are working to establish an AI framework where humans can exist symbiotically with technology, rather than have dominion over it. She believes the ‘dominion over’ protocol of Western civilisation is a bug that has crashed nearly every system it has been programmed into. Plants and animals tend to go extinct in this process, and humans forced into slavery inevitably rise up against their masters. The same fate may await any future AI consciousness.
As an Indigenous woman and a technologist, Abdilla is well qualified to steer the AI ship in the right direction. Indigenous people have long found themselves on the wrong end of technologies wielded by colonists; indeed, the Europeans who invaded Tasmania tried to wipe Abdilla’s people off the face of the earth. Today, many of the descendants of the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples who survived this attempted genocide are busy revitalising their nearly lost cultural practices and traditional technologies. Abdilla’s work in harnessing the power of information technologies can be seen as a continuation of this reclamation process.
Abdilla started to think First Nations people might have something to offer AI design in 2013, when she developed a course to introduce robotics to Indigenous children in Sydney. In search of a culturally relevant way to explain the concept of coding protocols, Abdilla stumbled on the perfect analogy: the mapping of Country. She had the children draw up a chalk map of Aboriginal Sydney and its boundary lines. “Crossing these boundaries is acknowledged through protocols and ceremonies,” Abdilla explains. She taught the kids to program their robots to chart similar courses using analogous coding protocols.
The workshop also encouraged students to see the world from the robot’s point of view. In part, this was a practical step – as Abdilla says, “Many tasks humans perform unconsciously are tremendously difficult for robots; adopting the robot’s perspective highlights these challenges”. But through this process, she also came to see what Indigenous points of view could offer IT design. “I saw how Aboriginal protocols could align with technology. Protocols that might make AI and robotics far more effective.”
How Indigenous knowledge might inform a more nuanced technological framework remains to be seen. Perhaps there won’t be such an emphasis on speed: in 2014, Stephen Hawking predicted a scenario in which AI would take off on its own and keep redesigning itself at such a rate that humans, limited by slow biological evolution, would be superseded. From a Western mindset, that almost seems inevitable. Not so from an Indigenous one. As an example, Abdilla points to her uncle, a Wiradjuri and Kuku Thaypan Elder and futurist named Mukgrnngal. “He reminds me of the concept of Indymarra,” she says, “which in the Wiradjuri language means to do slowly, with honour and respect. We can all learn from that principle.”
English – the language used for coding – also has its limits. The ‘if-then’ logic that forms the basis of code implies a linear chain of cause and effect. But Indigenous languages that reflect holistic views of reality might phrase the same concept in a more circular fashion: ‘If this happens, these things also happen, and those occurrences co-create each other.’ If this sounds head-scratchingly complicated, it’s worth remembering that complexity is not necessarily a bad thing. As the native Hawaiian and Lakota programmers currently writing code in their own languages can attest, such complexity can be well suited to modern cyber systems. In an era of quantum computing, the linear reasoning of Anglo code may finally have reached its limits.
Brent Barron from CIFAR, a Canadian charity that seeks to address humanity’s most important questions, is excited by the possibilities of combining old and new ways of thinking. Earlier this year, CIFAR funded a workshop on Indigenous Protocol and AI in Hawai‘i; Old Ways, New, MIT and Oxford University were all partners. “As a society, we’re all wrestling with thorny issues about the ethics of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies,” he says. “We’re much more likely to get to the right answer if can draw on more than one philosophical tradition and values system.”
The workshop, which was co-designed and led by Abdilla, brought together First Nations people from around the globe, and included technologists, artists, historians and linguists. One participant was Suzanne Kite, an Oglala Lakota woman from Concordia University in Montreal. She described a system she created using human hair as a living network of sensors that can interface with machine learning software. The future of technology, she believes, lies not in what we can rip from the earth for a few more decades, but in an Indigenous understanding of biological hardware; resources we can grow ourselves, even from our own bodies. “How can Lakota understandings of hair affect the designs of technology?” she asked. “What does a Lakota data-visualisation interface look like?”
Environmental concerns were also of interest to Megan Kelleher, a Baradha woman from Melbourne’s RMIT University who focuses on the connections between Indigenous knowledge and blockchain technologies. She shared some of the innovations being made in automation, which included designs for bots made from seaweed, and cybernetic organisms that can move through the water like eels.
If a history of loss makes you even more vigilant about protecting what’s yours, Indigenous technologists might prove especially well equipped to deal with issues such as data ownership. Abdilla recalls the work of some Maori attendees at the workshop. “They developed an AI based on a really rigorous data sovereignty framework that’s profoundly different from the ways most other communities are working. Most of us don’t even think to ask questions about who owns our data, and where it’s being hosted. This matters.”
While the ultimate goal is to create a more hopeful future, there are more immediate benefits to Abdilla’s work, too. “When most people hear the word ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’, they think of the negative issues associated with those words. What we need to do is move beyond that block, and open up people’s imaginations.” In Australia, she says, “We have the world’s oldest living people. They have nurtured the driest continent on earth and, with a highly sophisticated body of knowledge, have not just sustained but nurtured thousands of generations of people. We need to get over the idea that we have to go to Europe or the States to find the leaders in innovation – we have them here.”
Or as Suzanne Kite puts it: “There is a reason our local knowledge and Indigenous technologies have survived in non-apocalyptic ways for millennia – because they work.”