Exploring Human Agency in the Age of AI

Sarah Newman aims to highlight the complexity of human-AI interaction through her innovative new art installations.

At Harvard’s MetaLab, an innovative group approaching the digital arts and humanities through research and creative projects, Sarah Newman is exploring the intersection of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Agency. With a Bachelors in philosophy and a Masters in art, Newman applies her humanistic perspective of philosophy to scrutinize our relationship with technology in a manner that is both accessible and engaging to audiences across the world. 

Newman sees art as a different way of engaging with ideas that allows for more play and curiosity. “Art enables people to form their own opinions in a way that receiving information sometimes doesn’t. It also reaches different audiences — a broader public than most academic journals do. I don’t like art that’s inaccessible and ugly. I work with conceptual art that is idea-driven, but is also beautiful. The real benefit of art, and the reason why I work with it, is because we are at a time right now where it’s really important to ask questions.” While most research is focused on finding answers and publishing conclusions, Newman argues that it is also important to ask questions that don’t have answers yet — a task that can be accomplished through art. To her, art is “a medium where asking questions is enough, and for me, asking questions to a broad audience where not all the answers will be the same is an important move to be making.”

“Art enables people to form their own opinions in a way that receiving information sometimes doesn’t.”

Sarah Newman

The Moral Labyrinth. An art installation, workshop, and website inspired by the Value Alignment Problem in AI, and considers the complexity of conflicting values, and reflects on the difficulty of embedding such values into technological systems. Image Source.

Newman explores questions about the value alignment problem in AI through her interactive installation, the Moral Labyrinth: “How do we embed values into sophisticated systems so that they act in accordance with the values of the society they serve? Who gets to determine which values to prioritize? How do we then interrogate such complex systems which often lack explainability?” The Moral Labyrinth is a maze whose walls are made from philosophical questions painted on the ground, which urges her audience to reflect upon their personal values and think critically about how these values will manifest themselves “in the swiftly approaching technological future.” Newman’s work on The Moral Labyrinth has prompted a broader philosophical question regarding the assumptions of agency that underlie the ethics of AI. “We have this deep intuition that we are the sole authors of our choices, though we may not have agency to the extent that we believe.” 

The Myth of Agency. An interactive installation that explores human and non-human agency, whether and how we make choices, and what implications this has in an increasingly complex technological world. Image Source.

Newman continues to unpack this notion of choice and control in her installation The Myth of Agency, an interactive assortment of audio, video, photography, and physical objects that question the nature of and differences between human and machine agency. In considering whether or not humans have control over their thoughts and actions, Newman contextualizes her considerations within the digital experience, where “there is a critical layer of technologies that are optimized for our attention and our clicks.” As more and more information is collected about us from advertisements and applications to create a digital experience outside of our control, Newman argues that we must find a way to bring some of the agency back to the individual. Through her work, Newman encourages others to contemplate their own agency within the digital experience. “Do we have agency at all in technology? What kinds of technologies give us agency, assuming that we have some agency to give up?”

Though Newman’s exploration of agency intrigues me, my personal inclination towards pragmatism as a philosophical framework prompted me to ask Newman why it matters whether or not we have agency at all. If the events of the world are bound to happen and we have no choice but to deal with the outcome, why do we care whether we were the ones who willed it or the universe brought it upon us? Newman concedes that she doesn’t know how learning about agency will change the game. However, she does argue that regardless of the answer, delving into agency leads to important conversations around technology. “The information we receive today is so deeply integrated with machine learning that having a sense of the limits of our agency and knowing where our intuitions are incorrect will be more empowering as we navigate a more complex digital world.” In a more practical sense, Newman asserts that we will be better equipped to handle the technology that we are using if we have a better understanding of agency. “And in the case that we do have some agency, when we are giving it over to systems, we should do so consciously and with our eyes wide open.” 

You can learn more about Sarah Newman and the AI + Art at metaLAB project here. Find current exhibits and stay tuned for exciting new projects!

About The Author

Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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