Indigenous knowledge that informs ‘machine learning’ can prevent stolen art and other culturally unsafe AI practices

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Artificial intelligence (AI) relies on its creators for training, otherwise known as “machine learning.” Machine learning is the process by which a machine generates its intelligence through external input.

But its behavior is determined by the information it provides. And at the moment, AI is a white male dominated field.

How can we ensure that the evolution of AI does not encroach on indigenous rights and data sovereignty?

AI threat to indigenous art

AI has the ability to create art and anyone can “create” indigenous art using these machines. Even before AI, tribal art has been appropriated and reproduced, especially for the tourism industry, without credit or acknowledgement.

And it could get worse as people are now able to create art through AI. This problem is not only experienced by local people, many artists affected by their art style are being abused.

Indigenous art is linked to history and is linked to culture and country. AI-generated indigenous art will lack this. It also has the effect of financially benefiting technology makers by outstripping indigenous actors.

Involving indigenous people in building AI or deciding what AI can learn can help reduce the exploitation of indigenous artists and their art.

Read more: AI can reinforce discrimination – but if used right, it can make work more inclusive

What is Indigenous Data Sovereignty?

Australia has a long history of data collection About Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But not much data was collected for the Or with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Aboriginal scholars Maggie Walter and Jackan Prehan write about this in the context of the growing Indigenous data sovereignty movement.

Indigenous data sovereignty is concerned with the rights of Indigenous peoples to own, control, access and own their own data and to decide to whom it is shared. Globally, indigenous peoples are pushing for formal agreements on indigenous data sovereignty.

Many indigenous people are concerned about how data is being used that includes our knowledge and cultural practices. This has led some indigenous lawyers to find ways to combine intellectual property with cultural rights.

Maori scholar Karaitiana Taiuru says:

If indigenous peoples do not have sovereignty over their own data, they will be recolonized in this information society.

How the crowd is using AI

Indigenous peoples are already collaborating on research that builds on indigenous knowledge and includes AI.

In the wetlands of Kakadu, rangers are using AI and indigenous knowledge to care for the land.

A weed called para grass is having a negative effect on the magpie goose, which is declining. While Kakadu Rangers are doing their best to control the problem, the size of the area (two million hectares) makes it difficult.

Using magpie geese and drones to collect and analyze information on the impact of para grass on the positive impact on swan numbers.

Projects like this are important as species are disappearing and ecosystems are being damaged at an alarming rate as biodiversity is lost around the world. As a result of this collaboration, thousands of magpies are returning to the country to breed.

Wetlands are the “supermarket of the bush”.

The project involves traditional landowners (collectively known as Bininj in the north of Kakadu National Park and Mungguy in the south) working with rangers and researchers to protect the environment and preserve biodiversity.

By working with traditional owners, monitoring systems are able to program with geographically-specific knowledge, otherwise unrecorded, that reflects Indigenous people’s connection to the land. This collaboration highlights the need to ensure an indigenous-led approach.

In another example, in Sanikiluak, an Inuit community in Nunavut, Canada, a project called PolArctic uses scientific data combined with local knowledge to assess and manage the location of fisheries.

Changing climate patterns are affecting the availability of fish, and this is another example where local knowledge is providing solutions to biodiversity issues posed by the global climate crisis.

DigiDigital is an indigenously owned for-profit company founded by Dharug, Cabrogal innovator Mikaela Jade. Jade has worked with Kakadu Traditional Owners to use augmented reality to tell stories about their land.

Digital is also providing avenues for the crowd who are eager to learn more about digital technologies and connect them with their knowledge.

Read more: How can Australia capitalize on AI while mitigating risk? It’s time to have your say

Future Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Inclusion

While AI is a powerful tool, it is limited by the data that informs it. The success of the above projects is because AI was informed by indigenous knowledge holders, who have long-standing ancestral relationships with the land, animals and environment.

Research suggests that AI is a white male-dominated industry. A global study found that while 12% of professionals at all levels are women, only 4% are people of color. Local participation was not recorded.

In early June, the Australian government’s Australia discussion paper on Safe and Responsible AI found racial and gender bias in AI evident. Racial bias was found, the paper found, when AI was used to predict criminal behavior.

The aim of the study was to gain feedback on how to reduce potential risks of harm from AI. Advisory groups and consultation processes were raised as a solution, but were not explored in any real depth.

Indigenous knowledge has a lot to do with the development of new technologies, including AI. Art is part of our cultures, ceremonies and identity. AI-generated art presents the risk of mass reproduction and misrepresentation of culture without indigenous input or ownership.

The federal government must consider the indigenous knowledge that informs AI, the machine learning that supports data sovereignty. Australia has an opportunity to become a world leader in pursuing technological progress ethically.

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