A conversation with researcher Mutale Nkonde, who founded AI For The People. She works to stoke the winds of change through empowering artists in order to activate policy improvements. She shares her vision of enabling creative technologists to inform every sector of public life.
shownotesLast month, I had the opportunity to speak to Mutale Nkonde, a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center of Internet and Society at Harvard University, about her work in leading AI For The People, a non-profit communications agency that utilizes art to engage communities in the risks and rewards of machine learning. Throughout her career at the intersection of race and technology, her work has taken on new urgency as quantum, or super high-processing computing, becomes the standard driving machine learning systems.
In this episode, I discuss everything from how she started in a career in journalism then went on to taking jobs with people and organizations with “funny names” in the mid aught’s. I appreciate her focus on the role that funding plays in the tech. world, particularly the damage it causes when it incentives certain ideas of normalcy, typically constrained in narrow, white, cis-het notions of what the future should be. That particular version of the future doesn’t include people like her and she asks, “what could happen when the people creating the technology are black women inspired by the science fiction of Octavia Butler?”
transcript (auto-generated, may have inconsistencies or errors.)
Roddy: Hello, this is Informer, the show that reveals the latest ideas from artists, thinkers, and technologists. Informer invites you behind the screen to me, that people sketching, hacking and imagining the next versions of our world. I'm Roddy Schrock your host. And in each episode, I spotlight creative minds grappling with a changing world through art technology, or often both. And I hope you'll subscribe to this email@example.com, where you can also find show notes, links, and more information on all of the artists and projects that we discuss. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak to Matala and Conda about her work in leading AI for the people, a nonprofit communications agency that utilizes art to engage communities in the risks and rewards of machine learning. Her work has taken on a new urgency as quantum or super high processing computing becomes the standard driving machine learning systems.
Roddy: In our conversation, we discuss everything from how she started in a career in journalism and going on to taking jobs with people and organizations with funny names in the mid aughts, I appreciated her focus on the role that funding in particular plays in the tech world, especially around the damage it causes when it incentivizes certain ideas of normalcy typically constrained in narrow white CIS het notions of what the future should be. That particular version of the future doesn't include people like her. And she asks what happens when the people creating the technology are black women who are inspired by the science fiction of say Octavia Butler. She kicks off her discussion by describing her discoveries of the American cable news market in its demands. When she moved to New York, having previously worked in long form journalism at the BBC,
Mutale: And I came to a market where it was like 60 seconds clips of people beating each other up. And then that was the story. And I couldn't, I couldn't really get used to that. And a friend of mine, um, was saying, well, you know, this guy's running. Um, and I was like, well, who, like, what are you talking about? And she was like, this guy, he's a Senator from Illinois, his name's Barack Hussein Obama. And I was like, well, he's never gonna win because his name's Hussain. Like, that's crazy, but he's black. And you know, his dad is Kenyan. I'm Zambia, I'm with it. What do I do? And ended up going across to the, um, Pennsylvania organization and working on this thing that I did not know at the time called Twitter, it was 2008. Nobody knew what it was. We didn't know what it was, but we became the Twitter team.
Mutale: And my whole job was finding really compelling pictures and writing really small headlines. I'm posting them into the atmosphere. And so coming out of that, um, eventually got a call from a company called Google. I was like, Google, that's such a crazy name, still working with policymakers that I had met from Obama. And, uh, one of those policymakers, Yvette Clark out of Brooklyn came to me one day and she said, whenever I come to Google, I have to, you know, see you we've been working together for years. What do you think about technology? And that was really the first time that I could have a conversation that was critical of tech and ended up being her AI advisor. And then as I was in that environment and I began to see how race racism, sex, sexism played out, this idea that technology could actually be problematic for people like me was a very new, new idea as well.
Roddy: It's so interesting to hear that story because there are a number of people that I've had the privilege of getting to know who work as artists as well. That were literally some of the first people I was aware of pointing out some of those blind spots that technology has and its extraordinary potential for creating damage in communities that often have not been as involved in invention of that technology.
Mutale: Um, I always let people know that the technology itself has the opportunity to be agnostic. The problem is that it's created by people within a context, which is racist, sexist, homophobic, um, you know, ablest and the reason that that becomes a real, um, sticking point is much of my interest is looking at machine learning systems. So these are systems that we're currently calling AI. I'm now starting to see more people writing about quantum, but that the actual way the technology works is the same. I'm also starting to see deep learning. And I say that because the terms will change. That is the culture of technology. The terms will change. The systems will remain the same. And one of the things that you have in machine learning protocols is this idea that we want to be able to predict the future. And this is because the people that create technologies are often white men that love science fiction.
Mutale: But what happens when you meet a black woman who loves science fiction and not just science fiction, but Octavia Butler, where black women are scented as the saviors of the future. And so what happens with, uh, machine learning is that there is this belief that we can look to the past to create the future. And we do that through training sets. Uh, facial recognition is a really good example of how looking at lots of faces and I'm, I, you know, I say that kind of sarcastically because it's white faces, it's male faces will help us recognize all faces. And that's really a blind spot of the developer. It's very rare that the non-white people, feminized people have decision-making power because it's one thing to be on a team as an intern. It's quite another thing to be on a team as product manager and quite frankly, because of the way these technologies are funded.
Mutale: If you do not have funders that think that justice and equity should be part of business outcome, you're just going to create something that's going to do the job as quickly as possible and not sit through an, and that means it's going to be more thoughtless. The societies we come from, which really are centered on white CIS hat, Anglo male's view of the world. So anyone that sits outside of that, including white men and white masculine people who do not fit that are not centered or not optimized for. Um, and then the third thing is just this very, um, lack of understanding of what the future could be a science fiction, where it's just white men, isn't science fiction. It's just one story of the future, but it can't, it can't predict my future.
Roddy: It's interesting is all these tools were predicated on quote unquote, predicting the future. But as you're pointing out, those visions of the future are inherently biased, restrictive and conservative, and theirs is also kind of, or I wonder, do you feel that there's an irony in this kind of belief that if we just know enough about what happened in the past, that will allow us to predict the future. That seems like that's already kind of like an inherently conservative perspective.
Mutale: The past was the best that we can get it. And if you ask, um, if you ask white gay men in San Francisco prior to Harvey milk, what was the past like for you? Those men are going to say it did not serve us. And so we changed it. And I think the role of the artist is to expand the imagination. And what we're speaking about is a lack of imagination.
Roddy: This is a good chance to learn more about what you're doing with AI, for the people. Could you share more about that organization and what your vision for AI for the people is
Mutale: So AI for the people as a communications firm, and what we want to do is to empower people to combat racial bias in technology. And what we think is the most galvanizing tool for that is art and culture, because there are many, many points of intervention that our position is if we cannot, we want to be able to stoke the winds of change. So we want to create those emotional peak conversation points around these insights that then let the rest of society, the lawyers, the policy makers, the politicians can, can then give them permission to go forward in this new way. So in our civic imagination work, sometimes it's legislation. Sometimes it's introducing the idea, uh, as we're doing with folks in Brownsville, Brooklyn, sometimes it's speaking to, um, tech firms. So we have a number of partnerships where tech firms themselves have come to us and said, we really appreciate you pointing out, you know, racism in this algorithm. Can you help us think about how we could design this differently? And, um, we're really leaning heavily on artist for that work because it's, it's about this imaginary, right? It's about this expansion. So we've had collaborations with four freedoms where speaking, um, to I-beam about what that could look like. We're speaking to RADA studios, we're looking into AR um, with folks that movers and shakers, and we're re we really love this because we're beginning to see places like the ACL. You say, do you think we should have an artist in residence?
Roddy: Well, I mean, that's, that's incredible to hear you say, and it makes me think of, uh, so many things. And one is just the power of art to create transformation, both at a societal level, but also, and Elizabeth Alexander I think, is so eloquent in how she talks about this, how transformation through art can happen on the individual in interior level as well. And to be able to connect that to meaningful change and thinking about its potential to actually impact policy is something that I feel like we're as, uh, at least in the United States, we're only beginning to scratch the surface of, of what that could be. And when you talk about these potential partnerships with organizations like the ACLU, I just think that that is such a huge step in the right direction. And it gives me so much hope for the policy world and the art world to be able to come together and to be able to understand each other and learn from each other. And I think that's probably one of the most positive directions that the art and culture sector can take, you know, going forward. Are there specific, um, examples of artists that, that you see working that are inspiring you in this realm or are helping you kind of get a larger sense of, of what might be possible?
Mutale: Yeah, the inspiration for this vertical of work really came from, um, Hank Willis, Thomas 50 state campaign and what that collective had been able to do in the public art space. And then a lot of the street art that came out of Minneapolis after the uprising was really inspiring to us because it gave such a great, um, commentary about our pandemics, not just of COVID-19, but of police violence against black bodies of poverty of, um, and really spoke to the need of solidarity and then the last person, the law. So that's kind of a group, a collective group. And then the last kind of body of art meeting policy, um, where the songs in the civil rights movement, we shall overcome, you know, our, the, um, say it loud, I'm black and proud. Like these were really, that was, these are really good examples of the way music just caught the moment, art, just it crystallized and, and gave direction because to say it loud that you're black and proud also means that you're living your life in a particular way with particular people and, um, really embracing the idea of human dignity.
Roddy: What are some of the sort of key arenas that you would like to see change happen within? Um, as someone who, as I understand, it was directly involved in actually drafting policy and bringing policy proposals and bills to, you know, governing bodies. Do you have kind of a set of specific arenas and an idea of exactly sort of what changes you would like to see happen?
Mutale: Yes. So, um, you know, just kind of going back to leading the drafting of the algorithmic accountability act and the deep fakes accountability act, which obviously as a, as a film person, I was really concerned about deep fakes and film, as well as no biometric barriers to housing. I was involved in their conception. I was involved in their drafting and when it came time to get support for those bills to move them out of committee, we did not have the language to translate easily because nobody had time. People had their other priorities. We had Paul Ryan in the house, we had Mitch McConnell in the Senate. We had Trump in the white house and there wasn't time. So the no biometric barriers to housing act has been reintroduced. But this time we had developed a film with amnesty international that looked at exactly the issues that the bill pointed to, but it was through the stories of, uh, two black, new Yorkers.
Mutale: It's five minutes, it's rotted studios who we're still collaborating with now. And it was something that we could get people to meet with us around. I need six minutes of your time. They were not intimidated by six minutes, we were able to play the video. And at the end of it, they were like, how can I support this? So policymakers, uh, definitely, um, one of those, they get bombarded with white papers and briefings. They do not get bombarded with art, right? You know, that's not a way that we understand if moving power, another audience are communities themselves. So we, uh, parties are one of our love languages. And we are currently in the process of having a series of returnable parties in, um, Brownsville, New York, where we bring resources to the community. We show the same film I just referenced, which is set in Brownsville.
Mutale: And we talk about community power and how social change doesn't come from inside the halls of Congress. So at city hall, social change comes when ordinary people get fed up. And while we don't want to get people fed up, we want to let them see the unseen harms and then empower them to take action. And then, um, surprisingly advocates are coming along. Like we, we, we're not pitching advocates. We're not looking for the HCLU or any of these other groups, but they're looking at what we're doing. And they're like, how can people pay attention to them? And, um, a piece that we were featured in around facial recognition just got nominated for a news. Emmy.
Mutale: Thank you. All right. So the advocacy world are like, we should've got them use Emmys and I'm like, where art is the word communicators, what you were saying, what you were saying is that this is terrible and it should be banned. And that made people really depressed. And what we were saying was this is terrible. And why don't we create an alternative future? Right.
Roddy: I think that what you're describing there is such an important pivot, which is helping people get out of the sense of despair that they might feel about some of these issues and understand one of the things that you were saying at the beginning of our conversation, which is these technologies can be neutral in. They can actually be better than neutral. They could actually work to the benefit of the public. Good, rather than just a few. And I wonder, do you have a sense of sort of what see is the bright spots on the horizon?
Mutale: Yes. And this is probably my favorite question that I'm ever asked by anybody because I love technology. That's why I work in technology because I love it. Understand my entry point. I was so inspired by Barack Obama that I learned a technology that I didn't understand, but if that was going to be the way that I could get to people as a communicator, I was going to do it. And the, and that was in my opinion, um, a really, really high spot, but I'm not going to choose social media because it has many other problems I'm currently involved in an Acura tech project. So the problem that we're trying to solve is, um, soil erosion in the Caribbean. Uh, we're both sitting in New York city, uh, formula, not pay territory. And we know that a large proportion of black Brooklyn are coming from that region.
Mutale: And we're looking at the way to use geo imaging technology. Again, going back to pictures and pictures, telling the story, um, to help small holder farmers who are typically making about less than a dollar a day, figure out which parts of their land that they should fertilize so that they don't over fertilize in that project. We're using, uh, sensors where using imagery, where using all of these suite of technologies, which when used on a human beings can be really harmful. But when used to save the planet, when use to increase yield, when used to, um, pass on savings so that people aren't living on a dollar a day, but they have fair wages when used to open up international markets. That's an incredibly, incredibly, um, positive use of technology. And so anything that's kind of environmental, I'm a really big fan of. And then the other side of it is I had the great honor of leading AI for the people I'm being in a financial situation where I could become an accredited investor. So, as I mentioned before, the investment is really where many of these mistakes get made. The entrepreneurs that I'm interested in are really looking at how do we create fair, inclusive systems. And then for my interests, I went to save the world and have parties. So I'm always looking at like what, you know, environmental benefit or social benefit. And I think the more money that there is for technologies that are meant to do that, the more different this field can be.
Roddy: What you're pointing out is really getting to the crux of kind of the simplicity of this problem. It's like, if we would just invest in the right things, we'd have better outcomes. You know, it's not that part, isn't rocket science. We can leave the rocket science to the rocket scientist. But if we, if there was a way to actually put the investments in exactly what you're describing, then I think that would probably be one of the biggest changes that we could all make.
Mutale: When I'm speaking to founding teams. One of my questions is always, well, how are you going to capture public imagination? And they're like, we have a, we have a CTO, we have this. And I'm like, but where is the artist? And so creating that type of incentive, because ultimately I want creative technologists to be able to work in any sector. I don't think that they should be silo to, well, those are the people that do are in tech. No, they should be at the center of the development process because when companies come to us, they come around questions of design. They need people who are creative, they need artists. And so few people identify that way, that there is this huge market that nobody knows about
Roddy: Actually the ones who they actually know how to ask the right questions as well. And that's something that you and I get to see with the people that we work with, that sometimes you forget that, that those sorts of insights aren't made available to the people who are actually inventing this technology that then goes on to impact so many of our lives and AI for the people began as a policy organization and moved into being a communications organization, for lack of a better phrase, if I'm understanding correctly. And can you say just maybe a few words about what you see as being the biggest advantage or the biggest outcome from making that shift as an organization?
Mutale: Yeah, so we incorporated in October, 2019 and thought we were going to spend 2020 lobbying and really set ourselves up for those meetings. Those briefings, the things that I personally was really good at, and then COVID-19 came and people can move. And we ha we were at this point inflection point of, do we not do any work for a year? Do we, and we'd raise money. Do we close down? Do we? And I was like, well, what actually happens when you do these briefings? And I realized you communicate, you educate and you, and at the same time members of the policy community who had been very welcoming to me as an individual, became very hostile to the idea of an organization and an idea, an organization with institutional funding, with an ecosystem to support the work. And I truly believe you should go where you're loved.
Mutale: I truly believe that instead of getting a seat at the table, why don't you make a cabana? And I was home watching tiger king. And I was like, Joey, exotic is wild. But the thing I love about Joey exotic is that this weird threatful gay throuple lion taming situation is something that lives in his imagination. What could this be? And that was really the best it's, you know, um, the best decision that we could make. The great thing about being a TV producer is that you're always creating things very quickly. And so we stripped away the things that we would have been doing, communicating and educating. We decided that, um, COVID was really depressing and we wanted something that was about joy and that was about agency. And, uh, we were in, uh, uh, election. Luckily for me, I know how to analyze datasets because I just had to, I had to analyze data in the course of working in a tech firm and then, you know, going, I had that skill on our first project was looking at, um, misinformation on social media, targeted towards black people using pictures.
Mutale: Again, I have to keep going back to be having a visual, um, vocabulary and how this has helped me throughout my life. And we published a paper. It got published in the Harvard misinformation review. It got to the attention of the Biden administration. It got, because nobody was looking at these questions. Everybody was like white supremacists. There were threat, white supremacists are a threat. And then when the stop, the steel rally happened and Rica Tario and Ali Alexander, both black men were key organizers. And so then they were like, well, what's going on with black disinformation? And we were there. The idea of just doing policy work is really boring when we could be making films when we could be taking pictures when we could be having parties. And this is where we were welcome. And so the groups that were so hostile to us are now I'm wondering how we, how we do what we do and, and now wanting to partner, and that's not our direction anymore.
Roddy: I love that story. And I just think that, um, I don't know of anyone who's doing work in the way that you all are. And it's just such a, um, pleasure to learn more about how you've been thinking about it, how your passion and vision is really helping define, uh, the future for AI, for the people
Mutale: We're going through a process where every six months where we're looking at the work we're doing, we're looking at the partners we have, and then we're refining, um, our models. So it's probably gonna take us four or five years to say exactly what we do, but we do know we're going to be doing film because we got an Emmy nomination.
Roddy: I think that's super smart to give yourself time to kind of develop your approach, you know, and, and when you say giving yourself four or five years to sort of define what you're doing, I just think to myself, wow, that sounds so luxurious. And to have that much time to really so often, especially in the nonprofit world, if you're, if you don't present yourself as being fully formed and fully defined and et cetera, like right from the get-go, there's often a perception that you're, you're not where you need to be or something along those lines. When in fact, by you all just being very transparent about that process and giving yourself that time to just change and grow. I think that's in the long-term. I can only imagine that that will just be completely beneficial to everything that you're doing,
Mutale: But we're also coming with privilege because we're producers like I'm as an ed thinking, well, this year we've already done the film with amnesty. We've already done the launch. We got an Emmy. We can, I can definitely write in the end of your report that we did this, this and this. Um, and so it's really, I make sure that we may co those, you know, um, the disinformation work was published this year, January, right? Um, we're now being trolled on Twitter, which is like a very famous case. So we're now working with Twitter we're now, but because we're because we go where we're welcomed the impact presents itself to us. And that, that gives us then the privilege. I think meaning non-profits are not very impactful. So it's more difficult to make that case
Roddy: Certainly, you know, from where I said flexibility. And as you said, going to where you're wanted and needed, and sort of just following that path and allowing yourself to be open to that and have that flexibility is, is the only way I can imagine working anyone who's locked into the vision of what they were in 2019, I think is probably they're going to be struggling.
Mutale: Yup. You're going to be wondering what quantum is and you and I, Roddy, will be like, it's big data and AI and machine learning. That's
Mutale: I always tell people, I don't know what's going to happen, but I know it's going to be done
Roddy: Words to live by. I deeply appreciate Matala his work in stoking the winds of change and believe that we're just discovering what it could mean to have artists informing every sector, not just in technology. I look forward to future conversations with her to learn about her progress in this important work until next time. Thanks for joining me at Informer. And I hope that you'll join us again.