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Cambridge Festival of Ideas: can we harness artificial intelligence and just where is technology taking us?

From the consequences of systems that think far beyond human abilities to social media hate speech, the Cambridge Festival of Ideas examines the ongoing positive and negative impacts of technology on our lives.

From robot surgeons and sophisticated algorithms determining the jobs we get, to what we read in the news, artificial intelligence is now ubiquitous in our lives. Several events at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas (14-27 October) look at the far-reaching advances offered by AI and consider the consequences of these systems for all of us.

In AI: life in the age of intelligent machines (16 Oct), researchers from the Leverhulme Centre for Future Intelligence and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk debate the consequences of AI. The event includes the screening of a short film. With Dr Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh – The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk; Dr Kanta Dihal – The Centre for Future intelligence (TBC); Dr Mateja Jamnik – The Department of Computer Science and Technology.

The researchers ask fundamental questions about the ethics, trust and humanity of AI systems. “It can’t simply be enough for the leading scientists as brilliant as they are to be pushing ahead as quickly as possible,” said Dr Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh. “We need there to be ongoing conversations and collaborations with the people who are thinking about the ethical impacts of the technology.

“The idea that AI can help us understand ourselves and the universe at a much deeper level is about as far reaching a goal for AI as could be.”

In Lex Ex Machina: will AI replace lawyers, judges and the rule of law? (18 Oct), Dr Christopher Markou from the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge examines what it would mean for democracy and the rule of law if AI replaced legal decision-makers.

In What makes us human in an age of AI (19 Oct) robots expert Hatice Gunes, Allegre Hadida from the Cambridge Creativity Lab, author and lecturer Laura Dietz and Stephen Cave from the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence explore whether automation will make us redundant or will human qualities become more sought after.

In Invisible women: data bias in a world designed for men (19 Oct), author and award-winning campaigner Caroline Criado Perez and Professor Ann Copestake, Head of the Department of Computer Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge, discuss whether women are in danger of being excluded by the technology revolution. In particular, they focus on AI and the male bias in data that machine learning algorithms are trained on.

Advances in machine learning and AI technologies are rapidly transforming our modern digital democracies. While they can have a positive impact on society, they also offer opportunities for distortion and deception. Unbalanced data sets used to train automated systems can reinforce problematical social biases; automated Twitter bots can drastically increase the spread of fake news and hate speech online; and the responses of automated Virtual Personal Assistants during conversations about sensitive topics (e.g. suicidal tendencies, religion, sexual identity) can have serious consequences. In Artificial intelligence and social change (19 Oct), Dr Stephanie Ullmann and Dr Marcus Tomalin from the 'Giving Voice to Digital Democracies' project at CRASSH explore some of these issues as well as discuss opportunities to implement these systems and technologies in ways that may affect more positively the kinds of social change that will shape modern digital democracies in the immediate future.

In relation to the issue of hate speech on social media, several Festival events explore the personal impact and offer potential solutions.

The psychological and societal harms that offensive language can cause are undeniable. In Disempowering hate speech: how to make social media less harmful (19 Oct), Dr Stephanie Ullmann and Dr Marcus Tomalin, from the 'Giving Voice to Digital Democracies' project at CRASSH, explore the use of a more ethical and user-centred method for dealing with the spread of hate speech on social media. They propose that hate speech should be handled by automated detection systems. 

Another solution for dealing with messages of fear and hate on social media comes from volunteer body #TurnToLove, which is seeking to change the narrative using a combination of on and off-line social activism to support and strengthen messages of love and unity. In Changing the narrative, finding a voice: social media impact and awareness with #TurnToLove (19 Oct), Heidar Ridha, founder of #TurnToLove, provides a two-hour training workshop on social media awareness and impact.  

In Digital violence against women: finding a solution (23 Oct), academic and activist Dr Lilia Giugni discusses the growing and disturbing issue of digital violence against women. As the online world becomes smaller so do the digital safe spaces for women who face abuse and threats of violence from trolls and bullies hidden behind a monitor. Digital violence can happen as a form of revenge porn for women by a partner or ex-partner; women who are dealing with domestic abuse in the home find it continues online; racist abuse is hurled at MPs, and academics have had their lives threatened for expressing an opinion.

Dr Giugni discusses the current issues women are facing and the innovative solutions that are being devised to deal with the hate and vitriol on social media platforms by faceless beings.

‘Hell is other people’ and, Sartre might have added, they’re even worse online. Is there a better way? In Hate speech, xenophobia and trolls (24 Oct), author and philosopher Dr Andy Martin hosts a discussion with Professors Mary Beard and Rae Langton from the University of Cambridge and journalists Sean O’Grady and Kuba Shand-Baptiste from The Independent.

Another event, Breaking: a year of google news headlines (26 Oct) examines what a year's worth of online news looks like during an entertaining and informative talk from artist Robert Good. He reflects on the state of the news industry as it grapples with fake news and clickbait and attempts to migrate from print to digital format. Robert asks, what information are we being drip-fed hour-by-hour and what sort of picture does it paint of life today?  Every day during 2018, he collected the headlines offered to him by the Google News feed and compiled them into an exhibition and book, Breaking – a mesmerising mix of sport, fashion, gossip and gloom.

Related events:

  • YouTube generation (19 Oct). Journalist Chris Stokel-Walker, author of YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars, in conversation with Ella McPherson, Lecturer in the Sociology of New Media and Digital Technology, on the social impact of the YouTube phenomenon.

  • The digital dark age (19 Oct). From parchment to petabytes, the transmission and storage of information has changed dramatically through the ages. This event explores the good, the bad and the downright scary elements of information in the digital age.

  • Managing change in the fourth industrial revolution (19 Oct). Developments in technologies are described as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. This workshop explores the main drivers of this revolution, its impacts on work, business and institutions, and how it affects developing countries.

  • Digital life in cities of refuge (19 Oct). Smartphones are used by migrants to navigate and access services, jobs, housing and information. However, does this access exclude, adversely include, or empower?

  • Has social media changed how we read? (19 Oct). Researcher Tyler Shores discusses how the move from books to screens is affecting our reading habits, whether digital distraction alters how we take in information, and what this means for the future of reading.

  • Citizen voice, social change and Africa’s digital revolution: power to the people (23 Oct). Can new technology strengthen democracy and allow a wider range of voices to be heard? This event explores how Africa’s Voices, a non-profit that spun out of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights, leverages technology to turn citizen voices into evidence for social change.

  • Desktop detection: true crime in the age of social media (26 Oct). Chaired by Tanya Horeck, author of Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era, this panel event asks: has social media changed the ways in which audiences engage with true crime shows?

  • Changing me to us: design challenges loneliness (26 & 27 Oct). Social media is fantastically useful to connect us all, but it has a darker side that can alienate individuals and generate a feeling of isolation. Interior Design students at ARU examine some research around loneliness and present an exhibition of proposals to help us all connect again.

 *The programme is available in hard copy around Cambridge and online here. Booking lines are open from 11am-3pm each weekday. Please call 01223 766 766.

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