The Impossibility of Automating Ambiguity

Abeba Birhane

Artificial Life

On the one hand, complexity science and enactive and embodied cognitive science approaches emphasize that people, as complex adaptive systems, are ambiguous, indeterminable, and inherently unpredictable. On the other, Machine Learning (ML) systems that claim to predict human behaviour are becoming ubiquitous in all spheres of social life. I contend that ubiquitous Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ML systems are close descendants of the Cartesian and Newtonian worldview in so far as they are tools that fundamentally sort, categorize, and classify the world, and forecast the future. Through the practice of clustering, sorting, and predicting human behaviour and action, these systems impose order, equilibrium, and stability to the active, fluid, messy, and unpredictable nature of human behaviour and the social world at large. Grounded in complexity science and enactive and embodied cognitive science approaches, this article emphasizes why people, embedded in social systems, are indeterminable and unpredictable. When ML systems “pick up” patterns and clusters, this often amounts to identifying historically and socially held norms, conventions, and stereotypes. Machine prediction of social behaviour, I argue, is not only erroneous but also presents real harm to those at the margins of society.

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