Humanism and the dawn of artificial intelligence – interview with Dr Kate Devlin

10 May, 2023

Picutred: Dr Kate Devlin, Humanists UK Convention 2022, Belfast.

Never has artificial intelligence (AI) been more prevalent in the lives of everyday people. Even in its infancy, its application is far reaching. The digital world will never be the same. So while its development steamrolls ahead, we caught up with our patron Dr Kate Devlin, a computer scientist specialising in AI, to find out more about her research, our digital future, and how humanists can contribute to this conversation.

Hi Kate! First of all, can you tell us a bit more about your research? 

I’m an interdisciplinary computer scientist. I study our interactions with artificial intelligence and robotics, looking at the impact this has on people as individuals and on societies. From 2015-2020 most of my work centred on intimacy and technology: anything from sex tech to companion chatbots. I’m currently part of a UK project called the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Hub that explores how we can – and should – make sure all development in this area is done responsibly, ethically and equitably.

I still look at the intimacy and rapport we have with those systems, but now I’m very interested in care, death and loss and how we navigate those feelings with technology – and because of it.

How do you think the field of human-computer interaction has evolved in the last 20 years or so? 

When I started teaching human-computing interaction as a new lecturer back in 2006, we didn’t even have smartphones. I was giving lectures and running practical classes on how we study the user to know more about how they respond and accept technologies, and we had very little idea of what lay ahead. The user doesn’t change much – humans are broadly very similar in their cognitive responses – but the tech does, as does the social and cultural landscape.

Do the ways people use ‘sex robots’ (or artificial intelligences) tell us anything about human nature? Can they tell us anything about relationships between human beings, or the nature of sex?

I was seeing so many headlines warning that sex robots were going to be sweeping the globe and that ‘real’ relationships would suffer. That just wasn’t the truth on the ground – there are barely any so-called sex robots in existence, even today – so I was curious to know more about why people thought this and what they actually wanted. This proved to be a fascinating dive into the stories we tell about the future. We have a long history of storytelling about artificial humans and substitute companions. Often, these are dystopian: cautionary tales that tell us more about our own fears, such as loss of control, or a quest for someone to fully understand and accept us.

I don’t see anything inherently wrong with people turning to technology for sex, or intimacy, or even love. For some people, this is a source of contentment or pleasure. It’s not the same as a human-human relationship; it’s its own thing. I don’t see it as a threat. There’s a societal assumption that the default thing everyone must aspire to is a heteronormative, monogamous relationship resulting in a nuclear family, or that a miserable human-human relationship is somehow better than finding solace in singlehood with some online companionship. Well, the world is fortunately more interesting than that.

When did you first come to identify as a humanist?

Growing up in Northern Ireland, religion is as much cultural as it is a faith. I was the child of a ‘mixed marriage’ – a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. I grew up in a Catholic village, but I went to a state (Protestant) school. There was no objective aspect to it: I did 14 years of compulsory Bible studies in the education system, but our household never attended church or mass.

My parents thought I could choose my own religion when I was old enough. I chose atheism. I just couldn’t get my head around a divine being. I really wanted to – I loved the aesthetic, loved the idea of an afterlife – but it was always hollow. From early on I’ve believed that it’s what we do now, on this earth, that matters.

We last saw you in Belfast when you spoke at the Humanists UK Convention there last year, where the big mood in the air was ‘Northern Ireland is changing for the better’. How do you see it?

It was lovely being back in Belfast. I grew up about 30 miles south of the city but I lived in Belfast for 7 years, for my undergraduate and Masters degrees, and then later to work there. I was there for the final years of The Troubles. I still think about how my vote was one of the Yes votes in the referendum that led to the Good Friday Agreement. I’m proud of that. It’s a mighty wee place and I hope with all my heart that things flourish.

It seems like we’re at a point in history where thinking about ethics and human-computer interaction is really going to be essential to stewarding these new technologies. What role can humanists play in these big discussions? What influence can ordinary people have?

We need people’s views. We need to know what everyone’s hopes and fears are around this technology. We need to make sure all voices are heard. There are decisions being made by big tech companies that never stop to consider the implications and the effects on the lives of individuals all around the world. It’s already abundantly clear that even well-intentioned AI has resulted in discrimination and bias. As for the latest advances that could lead to huge leaps forward, I’m fed up with the narrative that developers are ‘playing god’. Pick a better description! Much like organised religion, it’s a power struggle. It’s capitalism and control.

What inspires your interest in Adela Breton? Who was she and what did she do?

Before I was a computer scientist, I was an archaeologist. That’s what my undergraduate degree was in, and I spent a while as a digger. One of my heroes is the incredible Miss Breton.

In 1900, Adela Catherine Breton, a fifty-year-old Victorian gentlewoman from Bath, set off on a journey around Mexico on an archaeological quest to make detailed watercolour records of the Mayan ruins. For 23 years she dedicated much of her life to recording the subtle nuances in colour found in the frescoes. I found out about her when I first moved to Bristol: there I was, starting a PhD on perception, light and colour and computer science – and my full name is also Adela Katharine. It seemed utterly serendipitous.

I particularly love the accounts of her from her contemporaries, who said things like ‘To tell the honest truth she’s a nuisance. She is a ladylike person but ill of whims, complaints, and prejudices.’ In other words, she was an unapologetic woman in a man’s world, which made her the perfect role model for my life in tech!

Finally Kate, are there any Humanists UK campaigns that are particularly close to your heart?

I can honestly say that I agree with every single one of the campaigns that Humanists UK run. The ones that resonate most strongly are probably ones that relate to my own experiences growing up in Northern Ireland, so those around things my generation were denied, like impartial education on religion, or access to abortion.

Outside of the campaigns, in the past couple of years there have also been deaths in our extended family where our loved ones had humanist funeral ceremonies. A big thank you to the celebrants for those: they were the loveliest way to mark the loss of people gone from us too soon.

You can watch Dr Kate Devlin’s talk Humanists UK Convention 2023 Artificial intelligence vs human fallibility, on our YouTube channel.