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AI and Identity at the Edinburgh Fringe

Laurence explores the nature of identity, intertwining her own search for self, resulting from being a child born through Artificial Insemination, i.e., an early ‘test tube’ baby, (the first of the AIs), with the interlinking of human identities with our intelligent virtual assistants (the second AI).

Art is an excellent medium to explore the metaphysical, and it seems appropriate that the philosophy and human consequences of AI are being explored this year at the Fringe.

Human conversation relies, among other things, upon our outstanding ability to maintain context and resolve ambiguity through time. It is in these areas in particular that the current capabilities of NLU are lacking. However, this is a key area of research for most AI labs, be they academic or Silicon Valley, and one where some progress is likely to be made quickly.

Context, put a different way, is the maintenance and access of relevant data with respect to our current interlocutor and the moment of the conversation. All of the current intelligent personal assistants available today (Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana, etc…), are manufactured by companies with significant access to our personal data, albeit with slightly different slants dependent on their business model. The agent that, in the future, we are most likely to adopt is that which, is most able to understand us to provide context (a) to the conversations we have with it and (b) to support our transfer of agency to it.

It is this that raises the most pertinent questions, both in the play and for society. Laurence frequently asks Siri, ‘are you like me?’, ‘are you the same as me?’ and ‘what do you know about me?’. Although Siri proves a limited conversationalist in these areas, there are a couple of telling, if not slightly chilling, responses, particularly Siri’s frequent retort ‘like user, like assistant’. For me, this poses us a number of moral and existential questions that society must begin to contemplate, among which are…

Firstly, if, in the future, a personal assistant is able to acquire enough data about an individual to effectively make rational choices in the same manner as them, and to converse in an almost identical way, how intwined do their identities become? May I decide to assign power of attorney to it in the event that I become incapacitated? May my love ones continue to co-exist with it after I die? What does this do to our sense of mortality?

Secondly, the custody and maintenance of these identities is entrusted to, a not necessarily benevolent, third party. To what extent should we be willing to allow a third party to have the ability to modify, restrict access or even exterminate our potentially closest, most knowing companions?

The nature of identity and artificial intelligence was aptly explored at the Fringe, shedding light on our constantly shifting sense of self and highlighting the nature of this new ‘other me’. For me, this clearly underlines the importance of approaching Artificial Intelligence with a human centred approach.

If you are in Edinburgh this Fringe, its definitely worth checking out the show.

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