Dinkins herself is busy turning the experiences of three generations of her family into a bot, an oral-history-cum-memoir of a black family in America in the form of a computer algorithm. She, her aunt, and her niece have been interviewing one another intensively for the past several months, using stock questions intended to get at the fundamentals of their values, ethics, experiences, and the history of their family. The raw interviews are put into a machine learning system that digests them and generates an amalgam of the three family members—a voice in the machine whose manner of speech is a reflection of the family’s language and concerns.
“I can already see that when you ask [the bot] stuff, it sounds sort of like my family,” says Dinkins. “I know that love is going to come out, that family is going to come out. We haven’t even fed it that much data yet, but it sounds like us. It’s kind of magical. I’ve been thinking about making another bot that’s all about telling people they’re loved. But I realize that’s just my family coming out in another way.”
Dinkins sees in this algorithmic memoir something of a proof of concept: the potential to illustrate how different AI could look when it reflects the experiences and values of a more diverse set of people, and is divorced from market values. “It’s amazing that you put in a certain ethos and ethics and it comes back out,” she says. “What does that mean when it’s detached from commercial imperatives? Because I think that’s super important too. If we’re all after the next buck, we know what we get already. It could have value commercially, but it isn’t about commercial value.”
Dinkins has settled into the reality that advocating for greater representation and human values in code will probably be her life’s work. “The project keeps growing, which is both excellent and crazy,” she says. “People are listening to me, so I’m talking about something that needs to be said, clearly. There’s an urgency about it.”
Taking on the biases of a vast, multinational web of artificial intelligence technologies is no small task. Fortunately, Dinkins is part of a small but growing community of academics, technologists, multidisciplinary professionals, and organizations—like Black Girls Code
and Black in AI
—who recognize the threat at hand. “It’s a monster,” she says of the scale of the problem, “but I don’t think we can afford to have an adversarial relationship with technology. The work to try to get there is really worth the effort.”
That goal may require radically breaking with received code. It brings to mind the HBO series Westworld, in which we see a fantasy universe populated by robots—and created by white men. Thandie Newton, a black British actor, plays the bot Maeve Millay, the manager of a brothel who gradually unravels the true nature of her reality: that her every action is the result of computer algorithms written by men. “All my life I’ve prided myself on being a survivor. But surviving is just another loop,” she says in one scene of the first season. In another: “Time to write my own fucking story.”