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AI narratives: portrayals and perceptions of artificial intelligence and why they matter

The Turkish Chess Player, Wolfgang von Kempelen. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

11 December 2018

How researchers, communicators, policymakers, and publics talk about technology matters. Shared understandings about the nature, promise and risks of new technologies develop through the explicit or implicit stories that different groups tell about technology and its place in our lives. 

The AI narratives project – a joint endeavour by the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and the Royal Society – has been examining which narratives currently influence public debates about AI, and how these portrayals might shape public perceptions of the capabilities, risks, and benefits of AI technologies. 

Many of the current ideas about AI technologies that are pervasive in public consciousness – typically that AI is an embodied, super-human intelligence – are shaped by hundreds of years of stories that people have told about humans and machines, and our places in the world. This cultural hinterland shapes how AI is portrayed in media, culture, and everyday discussion; it influences what societies find concerning – or exciting – about technological developments; and it affects how different publics relate to AI technologies.

Building a well-founded public dialogue about AI technologies will be key to continued public confidence in the systems that deploy AI technologies, and to realising the benefits they promise across sectors. Since the launch of the machine learning project, the Royal Society has been creating spaces for public discussion about AI technologies, and their implications for society. 

In a series of four workshops (PDF), the Royal Society and Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence explored:

  • which narratives around intelligent machines are most prevalent, and their historical roots;
  • what can be learned from how the narrative around other complex, new technologies developed, and the impact of these; 
  • how narratives are shaping the development of AI, and the role of arts and media in this process; and
  • the implications of current AI narratives for researchers and communicators.
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