Case study

AI futures in the time of crisis

Has the global pandemic changed the future of artificial intelligence (AI)? York researchers investigate whether our vision for AI has changed in a time of crisis.

The issue

From robot care assistants to driverless cars, Artificial intelligence (AI) has the ability to make profound changes to the world, presenting both opportunities as well as challenges.

The AI Futures project centres around identifying the opportunities posed by a future with AI. It explores what the public, scholars, policy-makers and technologists want from AI and digital technology and what the future will look and feel like when we have it.

Whilst critically exploring the challenges posed by the growth of AI both in the every-day and in fiction, AI Futures aims to optimise our awareness of the positive impact of AI on the future of humanity by gathering narratives about its implications for digital creativity. 

The research

This research involved a multi-disciplinary team, working across the social sciences and computer science, to gather and analyse qualitative data from interviews with leading academics, decision-makers and thought-leaders. The project aimed to explore the perceptions and portrayals of AI, ultimately helping to inform policy and the identification of potential avenues for future, socially beneficial AI research. 

The research was conducted online during the pandemic during which researchers used both deductive and inductive approaches to the data i.e. some findings emerged from the data rather than the result of questions directly asked. No direct questions were asked about Covid-19 but it emerged as a theme throughout the interviews. Participants said their responses were framed with current events in mind. 

The outcome

The research highlighted that moments of crisis prompt questions about the future and can create a shifting sense of the present. Researchers found the ability of participants to imagine their future had been disrupted by the crisis. Many described a shifting perspective from a speculative and fantastical view of AI towards focusing on the more pressing issues including real-world applications. 

Participants were hopeful that the role of technology, despite it’s clear role during the pandemic would not replace what it is to be ‘human’ - in a sense, the pandemic shifted humans more towards the material world. 

The findings suggest the pandemic is a critical moment to stand back and reflect on how we use technology, to educate and to anticipate and it is recognised that this can’t be done without focusing on the ethical implications of AI. Building trust in systems and highlighting the potential biases which could arise from human values being encoded in technology must be addressed.

More broadly, the AI Futures project emphasises the urgent need for ethical reflection in AI governance, including ethical considerations relating to algorithmic bias and injustice, privacy, transparency, literacy, explainability, responsibility and trust. In particular, attention should focus on algorithmic bias with respect to specific groups such as age, race and class which could emerge.

The final aspect of the research investigated times where AI could help humans to flourish and equally, where it could impede them. Participants in particular talked about the double edged nature of a life with AI at home, work and in leisure. Further research will deepen the ethical reflection about how we help humans to flourish and mitigate harm. 

In a way bizarrely this tragedy, this pandemic has made me more hopeful that positive change over the next 20 years can happen especially regarding the implementation of technology.

Research participant

Additional information

This research is conducted by the Digital Creativity Labs based at the University of York.

Read the complete AI Future Research Report here. 

Featured researcher
Jenn Chubb

Jenn Chubb

Dr Chubb has a background mainly focused on epistemic responsibility in science and technology. Her interests lie in the philosophy of research, impact and ethics of emerging science and technologies.

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Featured researcher
Darren Reed

Darren Reed

Dr Reed is a social scientist, with an interest in narrative and interaction from the Department of Sociology at the University of York. 

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Featured researcher
Peter Cowling

Peter Cowling

Professor Cowling is a Digital Creativity Labs investigator based at Queen Mary’s University London and is a Professor of AI with particular expertise in games.

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