Meet the AI4ALL Team: Francis Mckay, Berggruen Institute Research Fellow

We are pleased to introduce to you Francis Mckay, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Berggruen Institute, who will be conducting research at AI4ALL for the next three years. Francis is part of Berggruen Transformations of the Human program, where he will be looking at the impact of AI on human identity, culture, and society.

In his role at AI4ALL, Francis will be delving deeper into the ethical implications of AI to better understand communities and groups that are underrepresented in AI.

Francis’s research interest centers around contemplative studies and virtue ethics among other things. His past research looked at how specific groups of people cultivate the virtues for living a better life through which he spent time alongside Buddhist communities and mindfulness meditation practitioners observing and participating in their traditions.

Now, he is extending that interest in ethics to the world of AI, examining how the concept of identity in AI might be furthered through an anthropological analysis of diversity, inclusion, and flourishing. Learn more about Francis, his research at AI4ALL and work with the Berggruen Institute, and his passion for anthropology and ethnography.

As told to Eunice Poon of AI4ALL by Francis Mckay

How did you hear about AI4ALL and how did you get involved in your current research project with the Berggruen Institute?

My first contact with AI4ALL was through the Berggruen Institute. I applied for a job with Berggruen to study AI in the Bay Area as part of a collaborative interdisciplinary project to explore AI as a whole, and how it is transforming classic anthropological concepts such as the notions of the human being, culture, and society.

What is the main focus of the research you will be conducting over the next three years at AI4ALL?

At the moment, the research is in its initial stages. So the broad goal is to take a really exploratory approach to AI. AI is a relatively new thing with a big impact on the world. We don’t want to presuppose what sort of impact it’s having, so we should have an exploratory moment in doing ethnographic research to see how AI is playing out on the ground, so to speak.

With that said, the Berggruen Institute has its own goals, AI4ALL has its own goals, and I have my own goals.

What the Berggruen Institute wants to find out through conducting research, is how this new work in AI is transforming classic anthropological concepts. So notions of the human being, of culture and society, and how these elements get impacted or changed through technological developments. On a high level, my research will focus on transformations of the human, and how human beings and the concept of the human is changing as a result of AI.

In terms of AI4ALL’s goals, we will be collaboratively defining goals throughout my research, but I think the initial interest here is looking at the ethics side of AI and the idea of the underrepresented groups that AI4ALL is working to reach. So part of the research I’ll be conducting at AI4ALL will serve to put a little bit more flesh on the bones of these groups to see what specific communities might benefit from some kind of targeted interventions or education programs.

Then there are my own goals, which are open and exploratory. I have specific interests in ethics and mental health, so I’d be interested in what themes come up in my research around those topics generally.

How does your approach as an anthropologist and ethnographer add to the research that you’re doing here at AI4ALL?

Anthropologists have a method that tries to take a very open stance to the sites we visit and hopefully ask pointed questions that will yield more insights. You can’t predict exactly where the research will bring you because of this openness. Through this method, we denaturalize things. Rather than confirming what people already think about something, we tend to interrogate some core assumptions and provide a space for reflections to show that maybe things that we thought were natural aren’t as natural as we assumed.

Hopefully, there is something in the research that we’re doing that will contribute to the community that we are working with. So that is a hope I have with my research at AI4ALL, that it will give back to the community.

In terms of how ethnography can contribute to AI4ALL, I think it can provide insights on how to nuance the debate. There seem to be narratives around the topic of AI that can get very polarized. For instance, AI is a great thing that can save the world, but it’s also a disastrous thing that is recreating inequalities across the board. These types of thoughts are what we hear around the topic of AI presently. But the world is not that black and white. So by doing long term participant observation work, which is a type of data collection method used in qualitative research and ethnography, you can get to that grey area. This is something I value — the ability to step back and recognize the complexities at stake, give weight to both sides of the argument, and try to find a space for the debate in the middle.

Who were your role models growing up? Do you have any role models now?

This question is an interesting one for me. In virtue ethics, one of the concepts that comes up is the idea of a moral exemplar. A moral exemplar being someone who embodies the virtues you might want to live up to and aspire to be like, which I think is what we’re talking about here with the idea of a role model. I’m interested in this idea of a moral exemplar as a theoretical concept, but the typical people who are usually considered as moral exemplars — though I have general admiration for those people — I don’t find myself necessarily wanting to model myself on.

For me, perhaps the idea of a role model is associated with people whom you love and admire, and that would always be my family and friends. Of course, my mom, my wife, my best friends, and my community are always going to fit into that category.

But I also have a fondness for ancient Greek philosophy. My first inclination when asked who my role models are was to think of some of the big figures in Greek philosophy or Roman philosophy, like Socrates, Aristotle, or Seneca. I don’t necessarily want to model myself on them, but I do find interest in their philosophical ideas about how to live, on which they had a lot to say.

When you aren’t conducting research in the field, what do you like to do?

When I’m not doing research, my wife and I like to take walks and explore the neighborhood. I just moved to the Bay Area, so we still have a lot of things to discover. Recently, we found a two dollar per scoop ice cream shop downtown Berkeley that we really enjoyed while on our walk. I also don’t mind a little bit of video gaming on the side once in a while, and also I really enjoy playing board games as well.

About Francis

Francis Mckay is a post-doctoral scholar at the Berkeley Center for New Media and a research fellow for the Berggruen Institute’s “Transformations of the Human” Project. He holds a Joint Ph.D. in Anthropology and the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the University of Chicago; an M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago; and a Joint B.A. Hons in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Manchester, UK. From 2016–2019 he was the Earl S Johnson Instructor in Anthropology for the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences. He is currently writing a book, an ethnographic study of mindfulness-based therapies in the US, entitled Homo-eudaimonicus: A Phenomenology of Flourishing. From 2019 to 2020 he is undertaking new ethnographic research on AI in the Bay Area, focusing on issues of ethics and AI. His most recent publication, with Ethos (2018), is “Telic Attunements: Moods and Ultimate Values (Among Meditation Practitioners in the United States)”. His research interests include science and technology studies, moral and medical anthropology, AI and Society; and contemplative studies.