Applying Anthropology to the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI)


Applying anthropology to the field of AI may seem like a strange choice since anthropology largely is about people and human behaviour while AI is a complex piece of technology. But there are key areas in the field of AI where the anthropologist can play a useful and supportive role. 

The definition of AI is the capability of devices or mechanisms and machinery to perform functions usually associated with human intelligence, including scientific systems, reasoning, optimization through experience, and automated motor systems.  The why, what and how anthropology can be used in the field of AI include  understanding of the mechanisms underlying thought and intelligent behavior and their embodiment in machines, and can aid in increasing public understanding of artificial intelligence, improve the teaching and training of AI practitioners, and provide guidance for research planners and funders concerning the importance and potential of current AI developments and future directions.

Studying the application allows for a better understand how sociality interacts with technical aspects of AI. Through research and analysis, anthropologists can learn how the social, cultural, ethical and technical fields intertwine and interact more thoroughly than typically is believed. In other words, the technical side of AI is very much social too, as an aspect of our human sociality. This also suggests that the connections between technical, social or ethical must become even more important to discussions on the implications AI has for our lives.  The field of AI is more than the attention-grabbing technologies and stories of robots, big data and black-boxed algorithms. It is also every part of its human counterparts — the ‘human’ has always been a part of its research and technologies. Thus, with potential uses across domains such as healthcare, labour and transportation, AI’s capacity to impact human lives is widely apparent. Therefore as a society, we need to understand and handle its social and ethical implications.

 An anthropologist has the potential to play a role within the field of AI in developing how it is applied to real-world applications beyond technology labs. This is because there is a danger that if the future is built just by engineers "it will work really well and none of us would like to live in it.” An anthropologists role is to ask the key questions and find the answers, such as how do you make what is technically possible but also what people wanted? They also need to look at new technology, how they work, what people do and do not do with them. This will become vital when cyber-physical systems become the norm. 

Applying anthropology to the fields of AI can be linked back to ethnographic research. In the 20th Century, anthropologists would be employed to aid companies in understanding how their customer used products or in the interactions within a company. Therefore anthropologists working on  AI in the 21st Century can be considered a natural progression of applying the skills sets of one field and using them in another. This is possible because it is the same concept, watching, learning how people are working and what kinds of patterns they are following. 

End-goal of applying anthropology to the field of AI is to achieve a better understanding of how the tools and systems of AI are used by people and how they are used for key roles. In order to lead to a better Human-System interactions for companies and users. 



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