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Global AI Narratives in Singapore

What do people talk about when they talk about AI? How do these stories of life with intelligent machines influence policy, governance, and science? In early 2017, the AI Narratives project at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (LCFI) at the University of Cambridge began investigating these questions, revealing, among other things, a 3000-year history of imagining intelligent machines, the role of over-promise and under-delivery in narratives of new technologies, and the influence of science fiction reading and viewing on AI researchers’ career choice, research direction, community formation, social and ethical thinking, and science communication (‘What AI Researchers Read’, Sarah Dillon and Jennifer Schaffer-Goddard, forthcoming).  

This initial research focused primarily on the English-language narratives that are dominant in the UK and US. In order to find out what imaginings are shaping expectations of AI in the rest of the world, the Narratives team launched an ambitious follow-up project: Global AI Narratives (GAIN). Through ten workshops around the globe, this project aims to begin charting how cultures other than the Anglophone West imagine a future with AI. 

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Botty McBotface, found at the Singapore Toy Museum, is the official mascot of the Global AI Narratives project. It will accompany our researchers to all of the ten planned workshops.

The first GAIN workshop was held in Singapore on 7 September 2018 at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in partnership with the NTU Institute for Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH) and with the support of the British High Commission. Graham Matthews (English, School of Humanities) and Hallam Stevens (NISTH) did an excellent job of putting the programme together. 

Neil Murphy (Associate Dean, College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences) gave his welcome address to an audience of a hundred people. The CFI team then introduced some of the findings of the initial AI Narratives project: first, Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal gave a keynote talk setting out their analysis of predominant hopes and fears for AI in the Anglophone West. The workshop then saw two panels: the first dedicated to technologists explaining the current state of AI in Singapore; the second dedicated to humanities researchers and creative writers addressing the associated narratives, in which Sarah Dillon presented the findings of the ‘What AI Researchers Read’ project.

The themes of utopia and dystopia surfaced, explicitly or implicitly, in many of the talks. On the one hand, the narratives presented by the technologists on the current state of the art of AI technology in Singapore were optimistic and exciting. They covered a wide range of new and forthcoming AI and robotics projects, some deploying well-publicised technologies such as self-driving cars (as presented by Niels de Boer from the Energy Research Institute at NTU), and others from fields less often associated with AI-related technologies: for example, Siang Hock from the Singapore National Library Board showed how robotics and chatbot technologies are being deployed to help with re-shelving, recommending new books, and assisting with referencing. 

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“There are no counternarratives” to these utopian visions in Singapore, said Pham Quang Cuong of the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at NTU, after impressing the audience with a video of a robot that could assemble an Ikea chair in eight minutes (without cursing or ruining a marriage). But the second panel showed that alternative visions could be found in fiction.

SingLit, as Singaporean literature is known, tends to be dystopian, with a specific function: to provide an alternative to the narratives promoted by the government. As one contributor noted, governance and technology are closely intertwined in Singapore, with the latter an integral part of the dominant, official utopian visions. Another contributor noted that this followed in a tradition of imagining the island state of Singapore as a potential utopia, a tradition that began with the British and was continued by Chinese invaders and settlers. SingLit provides a site for alternatives and responses, such as Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper (2016), which explores race relations, or Gopal Baratham’s ‘Ultimate Commodity’ (1981) which explores the ethics of organ donation (see below for details).

Several Western narratives came up as having influenced speculative SingLit: Kevin Martens Wong mentioned the Borg from Star Trek and the Chaos from Warhammer 40,000 as the main influence on his depiction of the AI Concordance in his 2017 novel Altered Straits. In the discussion, Kanta Dihal noted the absence of references to Isaac Asimov, who had been so influential in the West. The panellists noted that they were familiar with his work, but they did not think many of their students would be. Kevin Martens Wong brought the discussion back to one of utopia and dystopia, describing how Asimov had been influential for him when he was young, but that he found the stories too utopian now. Eric Kerr noted that his interest in Asimov’s visions paralleled Asimov’s own fascination with nineteenth century visions of the future: the technology had since moved on in ways that could not have been anticipated. This prompted him to reflect on how “it is really hard to tell at the time how you are restricted in your imagination”.  

While some of these themes were specific to Singapore, the workshop also revealed trends in Southeast Asian narratives around intelligent machines that resonated with themes the LCFI team had identified in the UK. For example, Melvin Chen discussed the concept of ‘imagination machines’, reflecting a question asked earlier that same week at a joint BBC-LCFI-Alan Turing Institute conference in London: Can AI be creative? The theme of AI-driven automation and related job losses also arose, even though labour was cheaper in Singapore than the UK. Although some of the technologies presented were intended specifically to augment human experience rather than replace it – such as the AI tutor initiative for students presented by Nabil Zary of the LKC School of Medicine at NTU – other presenters worried for their own jobs: Siang Hock wondered if reference librarians would exist for much longer. He pointed out that the prevalent reassuring narrative was that people would then be promoted to higher-level jobs, but in reality there were simply not enough such jobs available.

Of course, this summary report barely scratches the surface of the rich presentations and discussion. We will continue to analyse the distinctive and fascinating approaches to a future with AI highlighted by the workshop, and hope that the connections made will develop into long-lasting collaborations.  

In the meantime, we are happy to share the reading list of SingLit AI narratives with which the Narratives team returned to the UK:

Gopal Baratham, ‘Ultimate Commodity’, in Figments of Experience (Singapore: Times Books International, 1981).  

Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, ‘Semut, Lalat dan Cacing’ (loosely translated: ‘Creepy Crawlies’). In Nostalgia Yang Hilang (The End of Nostalgia) (Kuala Lumpur: Pekan Ilmu Publication, 2004).  

Nuraliah Norasid, The Gatekeeper (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016)

June (JY) Yang, ‘Secondhand Bodies’, in Lightspeed Magazine (2016)

Farihan Bahron, Kesumat Sang Avatar (Singapore: Unggun Creative, 2017)

Drewscape (Andrew Tan), ‘Rewire’, in Lontas 10 (2018)

Kevin Martens Wong, Altered Straits (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2017)

Kelly Bryant, Launch Pad (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2017)

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