Generative AI, DEIB, and Our Inability to Get Out of Our Own Way
Neil Gonsalves discusses how expertise can be augmented by technology rather than replaced by it.
“The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn” - Bertrand Russell
I recently attended a brilliant session on Generative AI and its application within the educational sector. There were a lot of great presentations and engaging topics discussed, but I’m going to focus on two occurrences that may encourage some introspection as we immerse ourselves in the constantly evolving world of Artificial Intelligence. Both incidents passed almost unnoticed yet registered with me for very personal reasons.
The keynote speaker demonstrated a piece of technology that could give the appearance that a user was maintaining eye contact on a video call even when he wasn’t. The demo video showed an actor on a split screen one labeled reality and the other AI generated. In reality the actor was looking down at his phone but the AI overlay made it appear as if he was still engaged on the call. - Everyone in the room laughed, a few jokes were made about how meetings would be less monotonous if we could actually be on our phones.
At another point in the presentation we were shown a program that would allow users to take a picture of something and have AI describe all the complex elements captured in the image. We chuckled again when we saw examples about how we it could read convoluted parking signs or have homework done by AI analyzing an image and providing a write up.
I think skepticism is baked into the genetics of homo-sapiens; no sooner than we come up with a new technology, we begin to spiral down a rabbit hole of doubt and cynicism. Somehow, we always end up trying to predict the future based on the worst versions of ourselves that we can conjure in our minds eye. Why is that I wonder? Are we truly that resistant to change? No matter how much progress we make, some tropes are permanently etched in our cultural consciousness.
Have you ever been able to get through an AI presentation without at least one reference to SkyNet, Cyberdyne or a Judgement Day pitting machines against humanity? I know I haven’t ! - Yet many of us forget that movie came out in 1984 at a time when some of us were still contemplating low price VHS vs high quality Betamax - That’s almost forty years ago. Video seem to have evolved but not our fear of SkyNet !
Everyone gets a big chuckle at tropes about computers killing us but something unintentional happens in every one of those rooms that we often miss. Our collective fears start to slowly creep into the space, without anyone necessarily noticing it, and our receptiveness subconsciously gets tainted. We normalize subtle anxieties and a conscious decoupling of ourselves from the technology we create occurs.
For all the wonders of AI, it’s fascinating to me that we get stuck on more trivial concerns like cheating or slacking on the job. It may be worth noting that neither cheating nor slacking ever needed the help of technology. People have always been sufficiently motivated to do both in the most creative ways.
To some extent many of us have a bias that technology makes us lazy or less productive, ironic because every AI presentation actually focuses on the redundancies technology can eliminate and the increased productivity we can realize. So why do we keep getting in our own way?
If we set aside our propensity for doubt, our often contagious pessimism in other people, and our innate ability to crap on everything new, we might realize that the potential of Artificial Intelligence actually rests within each one of us.
It is our expertise, our experience and our creativity that is augmented by technology. It allows us to do a little more of what we already want to do, be a little better at what we already need to be better at, and be more efficient with what we already strive to be more efficient at. It doesn’t replace us, it enhances our capacity to do more of what we are already passionate about.
Let me illustrate my point by returning to the examples I provided at the beginning of this article. - I am an advocate for viewpoint diversity, plurality and inclusivity based on our common humanity; if I put my DEIB hat on and reframe the content I listened to during that presentation utilizing my expertise, experience and knowledge - the jokes fade away and the value come into focus.
The eye contact AI overlay, could surely be used to hide disengagement, but it could also be used by people like me with visual deficiencies.
I suffered from a genetic eye disease as a child that resulted in me losing 95% vision in my right eye and 55% in my left. I was two weeks away from being blind when I received my first cornea transplant. Today I don’t live with the disease but my vision is less than optimal.
Our transition to virtual meetings and presentations is hard on my eyes, especially by midday, so I joke about preferring in person meetings, mostly because I dread the screen share and discussion around some tiny detail on the screen. The eye contact overlay would allows people like me to lean in, squint and strain without making us feel self conscious or force us to turn off our camera (nowadays viewed as a sign of disengagement itself). It could be a tool of inclusion and access which also preserves our health privacy.
The second scenario was originally viewed as a shortcut for parking or a way to make homework easier. Reframed from an access and inclusion lens however, it provides the opportunity for a family (perhaps currently on a long wait list for a family doctor) to take a picture of their sick child’s throat, the AI perhaps could use the image to scan for white patches or streaks of pus on the tonsils, tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth, or others markers that could be statistically indicative of strep throat.
Perhaps if verified for accuracy with a high degree of confidence the image could trigger an automated call in to the local pharmacy resulting in a prescription for antibiotics. - All of that might save that family from having to sit at a walk in clinic for hours, it may prevent someone from having to book off from work, it could level the playing field for people who do not have a family doctor.
It could even lighten the strain on the health care sector, an objective in keeping with the Province of Ontario’s attempt at making it more convenient for people to connect to care closer to home. According to a January 2023 press release from the Office of the Premier, “Allowing pharmacists to prescribe for these common ailments and renew prescriptions makes it easier for Ontarians to receive the care they need, while offering patients additional choices for how they receive health care”.
Those are just two examples of Generative AI augmenting my knowledge and experience as a DEIB advocate. I turned two quick jokes and dismissed moments into something that matters to the people seeking access to full social participation.
Now imagine if each of us shared how our expertise and experience informed the message from that session, imagine how many lost knowledge opportunities we might recover together!
About the Author: Neil Gonsalves is an Indian-born Canadian immigrant who grew up in Dubai, U.A.E. and moved to Canada in 1995. He is an Ontario college educator, a TEDx speaker, an author and columnist, a recreational dog trainer and an advocate for new immigrant integration and viewpoint diversity.