UB Humanities Institute’s annual festival looks at Life in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Release Date: September 19, 2022

“For three days, the Buffalo Humanities Festival will try to engage in conversations that look at both the benefits and detrimental effects of AI, including those elements of the technology that might inadvertently create risk. ”
Christina Milletti, interim director
UB Humanities Institute

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The University at Buffalo Humanities Institute (HI) will present the 2022 Humanities Festival Sept. 23-25, a free event exploring the theme of “Life in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” with speakers, panels, music and community conversations in partnership with SUNY Buffalo State, Canisius College, Daemen University, Niagara University, and Humanities New York.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is a double-edged sword that has become embedded in our lives in both subtle and overt ways. How does it help? How does it harm?” says Christina Milletti, associate professor of English and HI’s interim director. “For three days, the Buffalo Humanities Festival will try to engage in conversations that look at both the benefits and detrimental effects of AI, including those elements of the technology that might inadvertently create risk.”

Artificial Intelligence is the latest, most public example, of an emerging technology that inspires questions about social, ethical and moral implications of its development. The uncertainty is similar to what surrounded the advent of the broadcast era and the initial stages of internet access, according to Lindsay Brandon Hunter, associate professor of theatre and the interim executive director of HI.

“There is a long history of both moral panic and legitimate social inquiry about how new media shapes social action,” says Hunter. “When we integrate new technologies into a social system there will always be friction and celebration. Maybe what’s coming to the fore with contemporary concerns about AI and algorithmic techniques is the realization that technological change happens so quickly we don’t have time to pull back the curtain in order to see what’s really going on, who’s controlling it, and why.”

The festival’s launch on Friday, Sept. 23 at 6 p.m. at Torn Space Theater, 612 Fillmore Ave. in Buffalo, will feature “AfroRithms from the Future,” a collective, interactive storytelling performance involving the audience and local featured “players” that, through creative, afrofuturist-based gameplay, seeks to find solutions to dismantling systemic racism in favor of a socially just future, especially for those who do not traditionally benefit from technology.

Leading the performance will be AfroRithms co-founders Ahmed Best, adjunct professor of dramatic arts at the University of Southern California (and the actor/voice behind the “Star Wars” character Jar Jar Binks), and Lonny J Avi Brooks, California State University East Bay professor of strategic communication, alongside Buffalo “players” Chanon Judson, visiting associate professor of theatre and dance and co-artistic director of the acclaimed dance company, Urban Bush Women; Donte McFadden, PhD, UB director of the Distinguished Visiting Scholars Program; Samina Raja, PhD, professor of urban and regional planning; and Taylor Coleman, a UB graduate student of Africana and American Studies.

All other festival panels and performances will happen at Silo City. The complete schedule is available online.

The Festival at Silo City is highlighted by two special guest conversations. The first begins on Saturday, Sept. 24 at 11 a.m., and features the return of the AfroRithms group and select players for a “debrief” session of the Buffalo edition of the game. On Sunday, Sept. 25 at 11 a.m., the Festival launches with a visit from the University of Texas at Austin’s “Good Systems Group” (https://bridgingbarriers.utexas.edu/good-systems), a team of scholars across humanities and the sciences working to ensure the development of ethical, socially conscious AI.

Samuel Baker, associate professor of English and co-founder of Good Systems Group, and Sharon Strover, professor of journalism and media and co-director of the university’s Technology and Information Policy Institute, will discuss “Human Values and AI” with Kenny Joseph, PhD, UB assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

This year’s schedule might be the most wide-ranging and diversely informed conference HI has produced since beginning the annual Humanities Festival, according to Milletti.

Researchers and scholars in philosophy, media study, computer science, engineering, music, criminal justice, mobile computing, materials design, literature, theater and communicative disorders will be participating this year in a “convergent” conversation.

“We need all the critical inquiry tools that the humanities have to offer, in conversation with the sciences, in order to interrogate the profound impact of AI on our lives — from simple product and movie suggestions to divisive social media silos, from transportation safety and, perhaps, even travel to Mars,” says Milletti. 

The 2022 festival hopes to model that convergent conversation by deeply integrating varied disciplines on every panel to create new ways of addressing existing challenges.

“Our aim is to cultivate a rigorous and hopeful discussion,” says Hunter. “Our audience will leave with a sense that they’ve taken part in a conversation where various disciplines came together to not only exchange exciting ideas, but also to figure out what each of us can contribute to a dialogue that is incomplete without convergent participation.”

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