Afro Algorithms: a film on hidden biases in technologies shoots itself in the foot

Anatola Araba Pabst, “Afro Algorithms” (2022)

Here comes a very well-made 3D animated short that urges viewers to consider carefully how technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are often promoted as having the potential to improve human existence and quality of life, solving global problems such as food and water supply and distribution, and urban planning, yet on closer look are revealed to have internal flaws that reflect the biases of their creators. If these flaws and biases are not acknowledged and changed or rectified, the systems containing them can actually end up discriminating against those who are supposed to benefit from their implementation.

Two hundred years from now, AI robot Aero (voiced by Ava Raiin) has been designed, programmed and groomed to be the world’s first AI leader. She’s all set to deliver her inaugural speech but a little incident leads her to realise that her programming doesn’t include the worldview data of one of her creators, Dr Richards (Hoji Fortuna), who left the project of her creation early on after a spat with another creator, Miriam (Robin Quivers), and formed the League of Human Intelligence, now considered to be something of a terrorist organisation. Aero leaves the city (it’s not identified in the film) determined to find Dr Richards. Miriam sends out surveillance and security bots to bring Aero back before she finds the doctor but Aero, flying through a colourful, even psychedelic forest, evades and shoots them all down. She finally meets Dr Richards who tells here that he was thrown off the project and that Miriam has lied to her about the supposed danger of the League of Human Intelligence.

Aero gains access to huge databanks in Dr Richards’s underground shelter and discovers there are many “worldviews” – as in alternative ideologies and paradigms of the world – all purporting to describe reality and give it meaning. Many of these worldviews are those of marginalised individuals and communities, even entire peoples, who fell foul of the dominant (perhaps even colonial and imperialist) societies in their territories. By absorbing all these worldviews and stories, Aero discovers within herself a capacity for imagining and shaping a future very different from what had been programmed into her system by Miriam.

While the film is aimed at black audiences – all the people who worked on the film were either black Americans or people in sub-Saharan countries, and all the characters are portrayed as black in some way (even Aero has black African facial features) – the film’s themes can resonate with other marginalised groups and peoples who have been similarly persecuted by colonial and imperialist powers in the past. However the film does not include images of or references to such other marginalised groups and might be seen by these groups as being – ahem! – blinkered and discriminatory in this regard.

The characters clearly represent stereotypes – Aero is a child-like naif in whom the hopes of the world lie, and Dr Richards and Miriam represent opposed views of how technologies could be used to shape the world and direct its future – and the film’s plot can be so idealistic as to be (in its own way) misleading. Some viewers might find the film to be rather preachy. The film’s conclusion is very optimistic – maybe too much so – in its assumption that all that is needed is for Aero to be an effective leader is the imagination and creativity born from having or considering competing and divergent views of people and communities from around the world. The possibility that Aero might decide that allowing people and communities to make their own decisions about their lives and that she should resign from being world leader and just be her own AI person isn’t considered.

The film could potentially be a pilot for a series revolving around Aero but its optimistic ending closes off that avenue and turns it into little more than identity politics sloganeering.