Technology narrativesFiber optical cables

The nature, promise and risks of new technologies enter into our shared thinking through narrative – explicit or implicit stories about the technologies and their place in our lives. These narratives can determine what is salient about the technologies, influencing how they are represented in media, culture and everyday discussion. The narratives can influence the dynamics of concern and aspiration across society; the ways and the contexts in which different groups and individuals become aware of and respond to mainstream, new and emerging technologies. The narratives available at a particular point in time, and who tells them, can affect the course of technology development and uptake in subtle ways.

Whilst stories about artificial intelligence have been around for centuries, the way we think about AI is evolving. The Royal Society and Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence are exploring the ways that narratives about AI might be influencing the development of the technology.

The longevity and influence of narratives

Exploring different technology areas can show how explicit framings of a technology – how it is presented to the wider world – can be influential and long-lasting in this respect. For example in nuclear energy, Lewis Strauss, the Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, stated that nuclear power would create energy “too cheap to meter”. What turned out to be over-promising for this technology shaped the arguments of sceptics, and this image continues to be used by those who critique the technology. Early scientific optimism can create inadvertent and unexpected milestones that may – rightly or wrongly – influence how technology is perceived when those milestones are not met. Such framings can be hard to shake off and can dominate more complex and subtle considerations.

Diverse visions: aspirations and concerns

Instead of promoting single framings for technologies and their applications, sowing the seeds early on for multiple voices to be heard can promote diverse narratives and ensure that the technology develops in line with genuine societal needs. A greater diversity of both actors in the development of the technology and diversity in the stories we tell about AI may elucidate new uses and governance needs. This requires extensive and continued public dialogue; the Royal Society’s public dialogue on machine learning recently explored how these views can be context specific.

Encouraging credible, trustworthy and independent communicators who do not stand to benefit personally from the technology can create more realistic narratives around new technologies and science, especially when combined with greater scientific transparency and self-correction. Comprehensive scenario planning can build trustworthy narratives, helping to analyse possible worst case accident scenarios and substantially reduce future risk.

Widening the narratives on AI

Diversifying today’s stories about AI to ensure that they are reflective of the current technological development, will give us better ideas of how AI can be used to transform our lives. Dominant narratives focus on anthropomorphised AI, but the reality of AI includes systems that are distributed, embedded in complex systems and can be found in varied applications such as helping doctors detect breast cancer or increasing the responsiveness of emergency services to flooding incidents. Adding to existing narratives with stories from underrepresented voices can also help us, as citizens, policy-makers and scientists, to imagine new opportunities and expand our assessment of how AI should be regarded, regulated and harnessed for the best possible economic and societal outcomes.

This is why the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and the Royal Society are exploring how visions and narratives are shaping perceptions, the development of intelligent technology and trust in its use. Find more information.