A prestigious Soros fellowship has been awarded to Stephanie Dinkins, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Art. Dinkins was recently named to the Open Society Foundation’s 2018 class of Soros Equality Fellows, a program intended to help incubate innovators and risk-takers striving to create and develop new ways of addressing the challenges of racial disparity and discrimination in the United States.
Through this fellowship, Professor Dinkins is developing Not the Only One (NTOO), a multigenerational memoir of one black American family told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence with an evolving intellect.
According to Professor Dinkins, NTOO is a conversational AI design, trained and aligned with the hopes, needs and desires of black people who are drastically underrepresented in the tech sector. It’s an AI storyteller trained on oral histories and background information supplied by three generations of women from one family. NTOO’s knowledge will span at least 100 years of direct human experience, from the Great Migration, to 9/11 and beyond. Its knowledge base will expand through human contact and provides the digitized wisdom of ancestors in the context of current times.
“At its core, NTOO is code merged with oral history and a deep concern for the trajectory of our collective, computationally mediated future,” says Professor Dinkins. “It is an interactive voice-driven storyteller run by machine learning algorithms trained on oral histories collected from living subjects. One might imagine a highly customized version of Siri® or Alexa that tells stories from a particular cultural vantage point and has a custom voice.”
An interdisciplinary artist who investigates how artificial intelligence intersects with race, gender, aging, and the future, Professor Dinkins is particularly driven to work with communities of color to develop deep-rooted AI literacy and co-create more culturally inclusive equitable artificial intelligence. Through her NTOO project, she strives to create a new kind of artificially intelligent narrative form that uses oral history and creative storytelling methods, such interactivity, vocalization and verbal ingenuity to spark the imagination and draw more underrepresented communities into crucial conversations about AI and careers that can impact the trajectory of this far-reaching technology.
Inspired by questions raised by one of her previous projects, “Conversations with Bina48,” led Professor Dinkins to think about the AI mediated present and future. The more she talked to Bina48, a humanoid robot designed by Hanson Robotics, the more she began to worry about the many voices being left out of the creation of AI systems that are becoming unseen arbiters of our private lives, civil relationships, and future histories. She also thought Bina48 should not be the lone representative of blackness in the robot world. The best way to correct this, she says, is to create an example of what an AI created collectively by communities of color can be, and so the idea of NTOO was born.
When encountering the first iteration of NTOO, visitors will see and talk to a cast glass sculpture that resembles a Janus featuring the faces of the women who informed NTOO.
NTOO will be shown in fine arts contexts over the next few years. A beta version will be presented at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, and in Stony Brook’s Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, Staller Center for the Arts, in October. A version is scheduled to be shown at the Barbican in London in 2019.
Beyond nurturing their specific projects, the Soros Equality Fellows program seeks to promote leadership development training, networking, and other professional support aimed at building a pipeline connecting the energy and ideas of youth with the wisdom and influence of experience. The 2018 class includes artists, advocates, journalists, health care professionals, filmmakers, and organizers who come from diverse background but share a common thread in their commitment to racial justice, ideas for moving the country forward on issues that deeply divide us in this fractured age, and the desire to lead.
“Being recognized as a Soros Equality Fellow means time and resources to focus on work I genuinely believe in that catalyzes conversation about AI in communities of color and the recruitment of black and brown folks into the field of AI,” says Professor Dinkins. “Being recognized means people and institutions with power and the means to affect change recognize, to some extent, that equity and representation in the tech sector are essential to human survival. It means others believe that addressing ethics, humanistic concerns, the avoidance of deeply encoded injustice and the further homogenization of human endeavor through algorithmic means matters.”
The work of the Soros Equality Fellows has never seemed so urgent. “We are living in a time of enormous racial and ethnic tension, fueled by policies that actively promote xenophobia and fear of the ‘other,’” says Leslie Gross-Davis, director of the Equality team within U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations, who launched the initiative. “I can’t think of a better antidote to this climate than the incoming class of Soros Equality Fellows. They are the racial justice superheroes of tomorrow, bringing a diverse toolkit to bear in exposing the root causes of bias in our society and pointing us toward a brighter future. I am enormously proud of this, our second class of fellows, and incredibly excited to see their work unfold.”
A 2018-19 Data & Society Fellow, 2018 Sundance New Frontiers Story Lab Fellow, Resident Artist at Eyebeam, and Artist in Residence at the Nokia/Bell Labs E.A.T. Program, Professor Dinkins holds an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and is an alumna of the Whitney Independent Studies Program. Her work has been exhibited at the International Center of Photography, Herning Kunstmuseum, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, among many other venues.
Learn more about the Soros Equality Fellows program.