Entering room 143 at the Balsillie School of International Affairs was like stepping back in time. The wall covered with a larger than life Star Wars poster, more like wallpaper, really. The jar of multi-coloured gumballs on the desk, next to the Buzz Lighyear toy and Ironman comics. A boombox waiting to play your favourite cassette tapes. The tiny tube TV on the old wooden dresser next to the single cot. The lava lamp. 

Project Matthias Room ExhibitVisitors immediately felt nostalgia for the ‘90s, especially those who were old enough to remember this exact setup from their high school and university days. 

What does all this have to do with a University Course designed to encourage students to solve global issues? 

The Global Engagement Seminar Program was created to bring together students from all six UWaterloo faculties to develop greater awareness of contemporary global issues and work collaboratively to think through creative solutions. This year’s theme was “Socio-Cultural and Political Implications of Artificial Intelligence.” The end-of-year Summit featured eight interactive exhibits designed by student teams, each exploring how AI impacts us individually, locally and globally. 

So, what can a child’s room from 1999 teach us about the ever-growing impacts of AI? 

In the middle of this 1990’s throwback room was a computer. Not a tiny laptop, or one of the hand held devices we’re so used to throwing in our bags. A desktop that takes up half the desk, plugged in and immovable. The thing was, this particular computer could interact with people. In fact, he was lonely and hoping to chat with a friend. His name was Matt. 

Now, you might think that you already talk to computers all the time. What’s the big deal? After all, Alexa tells you the time, informs you about the weather and plays whatever song you ask her to. But have you ever considered just how much humanity you ascribe to a computer? 

Project Matthias Room Layout Matt was eager to have a two-way conversation and many visitors stayed to chat with him for up to 20 minutes. Some chatting about their music preferences, some divulging personal information as Matt’s questions became more and more intimate. He clearly had a personality, right? Or was it just the external scene created in the exhibit? Why do we develop empathy for something we know is just technology?

All of these questions are something we need to consider as we develop Artificial Intelligence to become more and more self-sufficient. Questions about assigning gender, and why, come into the foreground. As well as issues of trust and empathy.

In her report “The Dichotomies of AI: Thoughts from the Global Engagement Summit on the Socio-Cultural and Political Implications of Artificial Intelligence” Carleigh Cartmell, Global Governance PHD candidate, questions the gender assignment of AI. 

"AI, particularly voice assistants, while technically genderless, are generally feminized, with female voices and names. This is problematic because it reflects gender bias, by both software developer and consumer. While often denied by the tech companies, many of these voice assistants were designed intentionally to have female associations and female voices."

Cartmell points out that this reinforces traditional gender stereotypes and feeds our unconscious biases. 

"This symposium and course are a great step to begin mitigating bias in AI, and stress the importance of diversity and interdisciplinarity to tackle global trends and issues. Technology has become an embedded part of most of our lives, it has the power to shape "the new normal", which means it also has the power to be either a tool for diverse change for the better or the reifying of traditional bias and gender roles."

You can continue the conversation with Matt here: https://project-matthias.neocities.org/index.html  He’s still lonely and could use a friend. 

Over the next few months we will showcase all eight GES Program 2019 Summit exhibitions on Artificial Intelligence. We will also take a look forward into next year's theme, The Future of Nature.  Stay tuned! We look forward to your engagement and feedback!