No Coalmines, No Canaries: 1990s Cyberspace and the Future of AI Policy

27th June 15:100 – 15:20

Speaker: Prof Claire Warwick

Abstract: In this talk, I will discuss what we can learn about policy making in AI by looking back at the early days of the internet. Thirty years ago cyberspace, as it was then called was heralded as a new technology that would change every aspect of our working, and social lives for the better. Some academics and journalists warned of future hazards, such as cyber addiction, or the death of physical community. But meanwhile, real harm was being caused online to those who suffered trolling, hate speech and abuse. This should have been the canary in the virtual coalmine, warning that online environments might prove as toxic to the mental health of internet users as firedamp was to miners. But the victims of online harm in the 1990s were overwhelmingly female, and their experience went unnoticed by policy makers.

I will argue that we find ourselves in an analogous situation regarding AI, a technology which also promises to have profound effects on our lives. Journalists and scientists are already warning of its potential for future harm. But we currently have almost no information about the average person’s knowledge or experience of AI. This is especially important for members of deprived communities such as the former coalmining villages of the North East of England, whose access to healthcare, education or the justice or benefits system may soon be AI-driven. If the policy makers of the 1990s had paid attention to the experience of women online, they might have been alert to potential dangers inherent in online environments. If we want to understand the analogous harms, and benefits of AI, it is imperative that we develop our own early warning systems to alert us to future harms: we need, urgently, to find out more about how the average person experiences AI and take their views seriously or we risk missing signs of real danger which could affect us all in future.

Bio: Claire Warwick is a Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of English at Durham University. Her research is concerned with the way that digital resources, including artificial intelligence techniques, are used in the humanities and cultural heritage and in reading behaviour in physical and digital spaces. She has recently completed a monograph: Digital Humanities and the Cyberspace Decade: A World Elsewhere. She has led and co-investigated several digital humanities research projects, including the AEOLIAN network, which considered the potential for the application of AI to archives and cultural heritage. She collaborates widely, especially with researchers in Canada and the USA and gave the closing plenary lecture for the DH2016 conference. She has served on various advisory boards in digital humanities, for example the British Library’s BL Labs and was a member of the Conseil Scientifique du Campus Condorcet in Paris.

She was previously Pro-Vice-Chancellor: Research at Durham from 2014- 2019 and served as chair of the Russell Group PVCRs working group. Before coming to Durham, she was Head of UCL Department of Information Studies, and director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and began her academic career as a lecturer at Sheffield University’s iSchool. Her PhD, from Cambridge, was in English Literature, followed by a postdoctoral position at Oxford University’s Humanities Computing Unit and Faculty of English.