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Culturally diverse AI could enrich children’s learning

2 October 2019

I love the bold and colourful marae at Te Papa Tongarewa. The space is made up of a marae ātea (place of encounter) and a wharenui (meeting house). Visitors are exposed to the meaning of the marae experience. The space is also used for customary purposes such as celebrations and other events. It also makes a contemporary statement about Māori art – showing how it is possible to break free from “traditional” notions of what Māori art can, or should, be.

Recently, I came across another contemporary development – Te Ao Māori artificial intelligence (AI). Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, a hapū of about 5 000 members across Aotearoa, has developed what they’ve called the “Iwi Algorithm”. This aims to embed New Zealand’s unique cultural values at the heart of AI decision making.

But what does this mean? And what does it have to do with a future of work inquiry?

First, what’s an “algorithm”? It’s just a description of a process for a human or a computer to follow to achieve some goal. Algorithms are created by humans. Computer decision-making systems are influenced by the experience, skills, goals, values and culture of their creators. Such systems can therefore be biased. Bias can, of course, work for good and bad.

Some people are concerned that the conscious and unconscious biases of algorithm creators will work to the detriment of cultures under-represented in the creation process. One way this might be addressed is wider participation in the creation process, and that’s what Ngāti Whātua Ōrākeia are doing.

What is acceptable or positive can vary between cultures. Take the example of looking straight into someone else’s eyes:

Pākehā children are taught to look people in the eye to show trustworthiness, interest and undivided attention. Māori and Samoans often think that it is rude to look at people directly because to them it suggests a challenge and encourages conflict and opposition, so they may fix their gaze elsewhere or even close their eyes. Pākehā in turn may read this as rudeness or shiftiness.1

One could therefore quite easily imagine that a chatbot designed by a Māori or Pasifika person, or designed for use in specific contexts, may display quite different behaviours than if it was designed by a Pākehā person.

This is where the Iwi Algorithm comes in – it aims to incorporate Te Ao Māori into AI. As Te Aroha Grace from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei says, what comes out of AI is governed by the assumptions put into it.

In terms of our inquiry, I’m intrigued by the opportunities more culturally diverse AI could have for children’s education. This is because the Commission has heard that effective digital inclusion requires proper consideration of different cultural worldviews.

Imagine a classroom-based AI deployed in New Zealand. It doesn’t have to appear in human form. In Te Ao Māori, physical features like mountains or rivers have mauri and so could be excellent candidates for sharing their knowledge to tamariki. Ruru, for example, are powerful figures in Māori culture. It is believed that these owl spirits can act as kaitiaki (guardians) and have the power to protect, warn and advise. Owls are similarly imbued with wisdom in Pākehā culture. The ruru could be a more resonant interface for AI in New Zealand classrooms.

RuruRuru. Source: Zealandia (Flickr).

If New Zealand is serious about closing the digital divide, education technology needs to be engaging, so that motivation to interact with the online world is high. Kids who see their culture and their language reflected back at them are empowered in both culture and learning.

Te Aroha Grace highlighted that it is the mix of worldviews that stimulates innovation. And this is the future that I think New Zealand should aim at – one that recognises diversity and the value of different cultures and perspectives.

Grace further argues that the Iwi Algorithm is better for everyone, not just for Māori. And, public content that helps people to love themselves is vital to enable the most vulnerable to soar in multicultural worlds.2

1. Te Ara encyclopaedia of New Zealand
2. Te Aroha Grace, 2019, Pers. Comm

Header image
Te Marae at Te Papa Tongarewa. Source: JSilver (Flickr)

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