Addressing Data Deserts in Artificial Intelligence

3 min readJul 15, 2018

by Simin Kargar

Simin Kargar has extensive experience working with intergovernmental agencies and civil society on digital rights, access to information and secure communication mediums in the global south.

As machine learning and AI become ever present in our daily lives, we have to ask — how will these technologies impact our fundamental human rights? Algorithms affect the ways that we find education, jobs, and housing. They also impact how we communicate with one another and even express ourselves — think of the auto responses that Gmail now offers or emojis that iPhone Messages recommends.

At the same time, AI brings about critical implications for freedom of expression, the right to privacy, and socio-economic equality. As the debate around the implications of algorithmic decision-making for human rights grows, it is paramount to pay equal attention to the full spectrum of the human rights framework, including individual and collective rights. This in particular includes how scientific progress can benefit social, economic, and cultural rights.

The right of everyone to share in scientific advancement and its benefits is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, in slightly different terms, as the right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 2012 in her report to the UN General Assembly, Farida Shaheed, then Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, stressed the strong link of this right with the right to participate in cultural life, as well as other human rights. Its normative content includes:

  • access by everyone without discrimination to the benefits of science and its applications;
  • opportunities for all to contribute to the scientific enterprise;
  • participation of individuals and communities in decision-making; and
  • an enabling environment fostering the conservation, development, and diffusion of science and technology.

We can see how these principles apply to the development of AI and the impact that culturally diverse datasets can have on algorithmic decision-making. Without it in the long run, humanity risks the loss of much of our intangible cultural heritage, indigenous knowledge, and even more endangered languages.

As the use of AI and machine learning becomes a norm in storytelling and journalism, there is a dire need for providing machines with diverse data that equally represent all cultures, communities, and languages. By filling in the data deserts that pertain to underrepresented populations, AI will be capable of telling inclusive and more empowering narratives — a keystone of a sustainable media landscape. With time, resources, and dedication on the part of their creators, machines can become more conscious to contextual data that ultimately enrich their output. The more diverse and culturally sensitive these databases and procedures are, the more inclusive the results will be. This is the premise that IVOW is founded upon, combing through data and information on world cultures, history, and traditions in order to make our stories more meaningful and inclusive.

Today IVOW is releasing an interactive paper on AI, Culture and Storytelling that sheds light on technical, social, and cultural aspects of this nascent field, along with other innovations like chatbots that can take cultural storytelling to a new level. The paper also addresses the significance of data partnerships, crowdsourcing cultural data aggregation, and cross-sector collaborations as part of this novel approach to storytelling. Take a read and let us know what you think!

Simin Kargar is a human rights lawyer focusing on the interrelations of technology and human rights. She is also affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society where she studies the implication of AI in addressing harmful speech online, gender-based violence and technology and the interplays of power and social media. Simin brings extensive experience of working with intergovernmental agencies and civil society on digital rights, access to information and secure communication mediums in the global south. Simin previously served the mandate of Freedom of Expression at the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Follow Simin on Twitter and LinkedIn




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