UConn Humanities Institute Awarded NEH Grant to Examine Slavery and AI

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a two-year grant of nearly $140,000 to the University of Connecticut for the Humanities Institute (UCHI) to investigate how legacies of slavery are shaping the perception and reception of conversational artificial intelligence. This project, “Bringing the Past to the Future: Slavery and Artificial Intelligence on the Battleground of Popular Culture,” involves the development of a podcast series and scholarly book chapters analyzing how persistent narratives of slavery and servitude have influenced popular understanding of artificial intelligence and humans’ ethical engagement with emerging technologies.

“Bringing the Past to the Future” is funded under The Dangers and Opportunities of Technology: Perspectives from the Humanities (DOT) program, which “supports research that examines technology and its relationship to society through the lens of the humanities, with a focus on the dangers and/or opportunities presented by technology.”

The Principal investigator for the project is Anna Mae Duane, director of the UConn Humanities Institute and Professor of English. Co-principal investigator is Stephen Dyson, Professor of Political Science, and senior personnel includes Jeffrey Dudas, Professor of Political Science.

“This project asserts that science alone cannot provide the wisdom we need to navigate both the challenges and possibilities offered by Artificial Intelligence,” says Duane. “Because we believe that the stories we tell about the past influence how we engage the future, we need to understand how historical legacies of slavery shape how we perceive AI in film, literature, and other forms of popular culture. This work is vital as we move into a future in which concepts of human freedom and human rights could well be shaped by this evolving technology.”

“Bringing the Past to the Future” will unfold over three phases—Past, Present, and Future—in order to create a narrative and theoretical arc that draws on humanities scholarship to illustrate how deeply embedded beliefs about enslavement, freedom, and personhood shape our imaginative engagement with conversational AI. Phase one—Past—will explore the historical foundation of the project, including depictions slavery in popular culture and the role of conversation in anti-slavery arguments. Phase two—Present—will tackle how contemporary popular culture draws on metaphors of slavery to frame the emotional valences of engaging with social robots and conversational AI. And phase three—Future—will focus on how metaphors of enslavement and abolition shape how we imagine future emotional entanglements with AI technologies.

The six podcast episodes will be accompanied by corollary materials, including reading lists and discussion guides, to be hosted on a project website.