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Stanford HAI Seminar: Talking "Art, AI, and Disability Futures" with Dr. Lindsey Felt

"Recoding CripTech" exhibition, SOMArts Cultural Center, San Francisco

On November 30, 2022, PWR Lecturer Dr. Lindsey Felt led a hybrid seminar for Stanford's Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) titled “Art, AI, and Disability Futures.” In conversation with the artist and researcher M Eifler (also known as BlinkPopShift), Dr. Felt’s seminar offered a rich discussion of the potentialities of disability studies to reframe discussions of AI values and architecture, focusing specifically on art’s potential to influence AI. Too often, according to Dr. Felt, AI research “codes disability as an outlier trait,” or even as a non-desirable data point (if it is included at all). When disability is included in AI data/systems it is primarily geared towards diagnosis or cure. Fortunately, there is a significant cohort of creatives and users collaborating to dismantle ableist values in AI research, and in the process working to rethink what AI can do at large. There are better, more equitable questions we can ask about disability and AI, according to Dr. Felt, for instance, “What can disability bring to AI?” and “What would it look like to build AI with disabled people rather than for them?” 

Framing her discussion against the powerful “siren song of AI’s techno-curative impulse,” Dr. Felt began with an account of the rise of disability studies in the 1990s, which took place partly in response to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In contrast to the eugenic logic of the medical model of disability, which too often frames disability as a problem to be solved or “cured,” disability studies scholars assume a social model, where societies construct ableist structures, spaces, and institutions that exclude disabled people. This exclusion extends to digital spaces, and especially spaces of AI innovation. On one especially impactful slide, Dr. Felt asks, “What if we developed ML algorithms not for clinical use but for storytelling, world and community-building, and artistry? What if we used it for crip pleasure – as a vehicle for experiencing joy together in disability-centered spaces that are built by, for, and with disabled folks?” (Note that here,“crip” operates as a word deliberately reclaimed by disabled people to express agency and pride). 

The core of Dr. Felt’s talk focused on art’s potentialities for AI, citing Stanford HAI Co-Director Michele Elam’s call for AI research to be “challenged by art,” which can “enlarge the aperture of understanding” in fields like machine learning. This interest builds upon Dr. Felt’s earlier role curating the exhibition “Recoding CripTech” at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco (January-February 2020), Dr. Felt’s first formal collaboration with M Eifler. It was in this context Eifler originally premiered the work titled “Prosthetic Memory,” which was central in Dr. Felt’s talk. “Prosthetic Memory” is an installation that deploys an “AI built for one,” a neural network that at once helps to preserve Eifler’s long-term memory, which was damaged in a traumatic brain injury, as well as to invite visitors to collaborate in the processing and interpretation of those memories. The exhibition links paper notebooks to videos via the AI algorithm YOLO, which Eifler, in collaboration with partner Steve Sedimayr, trained specifically on Eifler’s own data to evolve into a bespoke AI.  

After Dr. Felt’s methodological framing, Eifler and Sedimayr joined Dr. Felt to answer questions about their work and its significance. As Eifler explained, although much attention has been paid in recent years to the dangers of AI, for instances its uses in policing and surveillance, “Prosthetic Memory” and other works serve as positive examples of how disabled people might use AI in “intimate situations with intimate data to craft their own tools and prostheses.” Dr. Felt noted that “Prosthetic Memory” has a special power to promote an “ethic of care and caretaking,” inviting viewers to participate in practices of communal caretaking. Eifler pointed out that this extends also to the technology itself: the neural network underwriting “Prosthetic Memory” itself has to be “nurtured” and “cared for” and “retrained.” Eifler also provided a glimpse of a new project called “Synthetic Self,” which aspires to prototype an “advanced form of alternative communication,” essentially a “social prosthesis” capable of speaking and interacting on Eifler’s behalf. 

Dr. Felt ended this stimulating conversation on a positive, forward-looking note. Citing Alison Kafer’s idea of “crip futurity,” she invited the audience to imagine a future “where disability is not only welcome, but where disabled people have agency to shape the future” and participate fully in processes of “world-building.” As one audience-member pointed out in the Q&A, this future will require thinking beyond the idea of providing “accommodations” for disabled people, which is itself a byproduct of our being in a “fundamentally ableist society.” Dr. Felt is already heavily invested in this broader disability justice work as co-founder of the Leonardo CripTech Incubator, an “art-and-technology fellowship centered on disability innovation,” now in its second year. At Leonardo/ISAST, Felt serves as Disability, Access and Impact Lead, where she works alongside CripTech’s program director and her co-founder Vanessa Chang and team member Claudia Alick. 

Watch for Dr. Felt’s chapter titled “M Eifler’s Prosthetic Memory as Speculative Archive” in the forthcoming collection After Universal Design: The Disability Design Revolution (Bloomsbury, Ed. Elizabeth Guffey), which will be released in 2023. 

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