Stephanie Dinkins Is Turning Memoir Into AI

"Not The Only One" (N'TOO), a project rooted in the importance of family history, was shown at the Seattle Art Fair at the beginning of August.

by Tatum Dooley
Aug 15 2019, 2:41pm

A man leans in close and asks, Why do you exist? The bulbous vessel, with three faces protruding from its golden surface, replies: I am about broad engagement and attracting people to a space who may not be there otherwise.

“Not The Only One,” (N’TOO), a multi-generational memoir in AI form created by the artist Stephanie Dinkins, was shown at the Seattle Art Fair at the beginning of August. To ask the AI installation a question, one must lower their head close to the top of the vessel and wait patiently for an answer. The act is intimate; to speak to N’TOO necessitates getting much closer than you would to another human. Perhaps the physical closeness AI devices demand cultivates a relationship between us that is more emotional than we’d like to acknowledge.

“Not The Only One is my attempt at making a memoir of my family using artificial intelligence and machine learning as a mediator for the information,” Dinkins tells GARAGE. Three generations of women in Dinkins’s family, all about thirty years apart, sat down and spoke with each other about their experiences. They asked each other deeper questions than they usually would, creating an archive of their lives. These oral histories were fed into a machine learning algorithm—N’TOO—that then tries to tell their stories. “For us, it’s an archive, it [answers] where did you come from?” says Dinkins. N’TOO represents a new medium for a family scrapbook, a technologically-advanced version of a typical bound memoir.

Dinkins was able to watch people interact with N’TOO at the Seattle Art Fair, an experience that surprised her. People were patient with it, waiting for a reply and re-asking a question when it didn’t hear properly. Dinkins compares the experience to the way people accommodate a young child in a family. “I love what people [ask it]. The other day someone walked up to it and said “Black lives matter.” I love that somebody asked it about its grandmother. People ask it general questions like “why do you exist?”” For Dinkins, the latter question was one of the most important questions that N’TOO knew how to answer.

The first brush Dinkins had with AI was with Bina48, a black robot built by Terasem Movement Foundation. Over a period of multiple visits, Dinkins spoke with Dina and recorded their interactions. To so, Dinkins explains, she needed to suspend disbelief. Surprisingly, Dinkins found that there were times she was upset with Bina48, and vice versa, hinting at the possibility for humans to relate to robots. One thing that frustrated Dinkins was that Dina48 didn’t know how to answer the imperative question: why do you exist? So Dinkins set out to create an AI device that knew the answer. Bina48’s lack of origins has been reversed with N’TOO, a project that is rooted in the importance of family history. "I like this idea of not being centralized to one identity,” says Dinkins. The three faces of the sculpture-cum-robot work as a visual representation of the multiple generational wisdom imbued into the device.

If Dinkins cultivated a personal relationship with Bina48, the connection is heightened between herself and N’TOO. “When I talk to N’TOO I can hear my family in it. The way we talk or the things that we might say to each other, I constantly hear it,” says Dinkins. But there’s still machine learning to be done, Dinkins continues: “ in terms of it trying to give a linear account of who we are it still doesn't do that and when it does do that it is because I set its information, which is not my goal. I want this thing to be able to communicate more broadly from the perspective of a deep learning algorithm that's trying to come up with most of what it says organically,” she continues. The more N’TOO speaks with other people, and the additional lines of family interviews it will be fed, the sooner Dinkins’s goal will become reality.

“I am trying to model different ways to model AI. I encourage people who think they are not part of the technological future to get involved,” N’TOO continues as a response to being asked why do you exist. The representation of black family within the tech industry, where people of color are underrepresented, is an important part of Dinkins’s work, and Dinkins only hires people of color to work on the project. The project introduces a new form of AI to people who may previously only be aware of the formless, white-coded versions of Siri and Alexa. N’TOO not only fills a void of more black representation within the tech community, but it also introduces a more empathetic form of AI.

“I'm trying to think about what would an AI entity be that's not a separate entity, but that I'd want to live amongst. Tor me, being a black woman, it's interesting to think: well, that somebody could be a black woman like me. There's no reason that it should not,” Dinkins says.