Risk and Delusion in the Rational World of Machine Learning Engineers (1/7)

Why we Need to Acknowledge the Power of Imagination in the Creation and Legitimisation of Artificial Intelligence. 
A research project on the social imaginaries of artificial intelligence of machine learning engineers.

Katrin Fritsch

After the radio, the light bulb and the Internet, artificial intelligence has become the latest technology that mobilises social visions, hopes, fears, and beliefs throughout society. The lack of consensus of what artificial intelligence actually is has created a fluid, open space for promises and concerns. They range from the hope that artificial intelligence solves social problems to the fear that exactly this technology leads to deeper inclines in society.

Current academic and public discourses waiver around topics such as transparency, accountability, or explainability of artificial intelligence. In this research, I want to approach artificial intelligence from a different angle. Recognising the inherent social and political aspects of technologies, I aim to raise awareness to the notion of imagination.

I argue that how we actually think of, imagine and envision technologies has a major impact on their adaption, diffusion and legitimisation.

That means that I approach artificial intelligence from a social constructivist perspective, claiming that social actors’ promises and beliefs actively shape and legitimise a technology, and hence establish structures of power. In this context, I emphasise the role engineers play as profound agents in the formalisation of new technologies.

Consequently, I have qualitatively interviewed machine learning engineers from companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Babylon) and academia (University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford) about their social imaginaries of artificial intelligence. I found that they imagine artificial intelligence as a tool, an assistant, a delusion, and a risk. Furthermore, I interpret and critique those social imaginaries. I argue that the imaginaries of artificial intelligence of machine learning engineers are always rendered by the computable, technically feasible. Hence, I emphasise the need to recognise multiple, coexisting social imaginaries in order to highlight the responsibility of every social actor in the social shaping of artificial intelligence.

I argue that alternative imaginative voices should initiate a discourse that is not constrained by what is technically possible, but by imagining what is socially desirable.


If you are interested in my research design, methodology, questionnaire, code book, sampling or selection of data please don’t hesitate to contact me. For the full bibliography, please also drop me a message. Click here to continue to Part 2.

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Author: Katrin Fritsch
Visuals: Katrin Fritsch
Editor: Siavash Eshghi

Full citation: Katrin Fritsch, “Risk and Delusion in the Rational World of Machine Learning Engineers”, MOTIF Institute for Digital Culture, (March 15, 2019), https://medium.com/@katrinfritsch/risk-and-delusion-in-the-rational-world-of-machine-learning-engineers-1-10-e739df39056a