Friday July 17th

Grassroots AI


  • I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’ve enjoyed so many of the spaces I got to explore this summer, and in particular why some of them resonated a lot more than others.
  • When I was younger, I was part of a couple grassroots theatre organizations. You see, where I am from, Art isn’t really given the kind of importance that it should (you aren’t expected to make a living doing just that), even though there has so much prolific work that has come out of that region, particularly on themes such as colonialism and post- colonialism. For many, performing in plays, singing, doing gigs was the way we had autonomy over our creativity. It was our voice in the evenings after working jobs in law, medicine or teaching during the day. Rehearsals were often in the evenings, so persons had enough time to get from work to the theatre, stay up late rehearsing, and get home early in the morning, all red-eyed, to head to work the next day.
  • Sometimes I think that our postcolonial past might have incentivized it to be that way. Your own identity and ways of exploring that are suppressed, or seen as illegitimate, versus maintaining previously set up systems.
  • This was our quiet resistance. It is embedded in our history. In one of our musical artforms, performers, even in the 1920s, would take on regal names such as Lord or Lady, or use names such as King. It was our artistic resistance and a way to reflect on our past, while giving social commentary on where we thought we were heading politically in our present, and what our future might look like.
  • Artistes like this guy spoke about believing in our country rather than giving up and deferring to British colonialism. The road would be hard, but we could do our own thing.

Creativity versus Maintenance

  • I’ve spoken about this quite a bit. In one of my first jobs out of college, I worked at a place where we just sold and rented stuff. I deliberately made a conscious decision that the next place I worked, it would be a place where we made stuff because I had just begun to feel the emptiness that goes along with that existence. Fortunately, on the weekends, I was making films with people all over LA. Making was important to me. Even in software, it’s a very different experience to work in a place where you make the product, versus gluing a bunch of tools that other companies provide together.
  • In our grassroots art groups, we found community. We performed plays under trees. We told stories. We wrote poetry. We danced and did choral speaking. There is a photo of me in the local newspaper when I was around nine years old playing the steelpan at the Creative Arts Centre with a group of other kids my age. That instrument is the only one invented in the 20th century. It is invented in my home country. It was only years later I realized the importance of being able to touch and learn about an invention that was made in your own country, by someone who looked like you. This was what art in my country did for me. It’s almost telling that something that had that much impact was suppressed in a way that made it difficult to make a living doing just that. I never found anything like that in the Sciences when I was in my home country, even though I did like Physics. I couldn’t find examples of seeing myself in anything we were taught in that field. I could only find it in the Arts.
  • I learned the Tobago jig that summer, and spoke to a guy who enjoyed my company (I have a long history of people twice my age enjoying my company), who turned out to be the son of this guy. He laughed at my witty answers to questions. He told everyone that I was his friend, and he brought me a bag of cherries.

This summer art has been my solace

  • Art has been that place where I can recalibrate and question the current world I’m in. I am wary of tying it too closely to my professional life, as it is emotionally exhausting to do so, and I am wary of commodifying that protected part of what makes me who I am. It’s easier and neater to separate parts of your life like that, and somehow, creativtiy and art always finds its way into everything I do anyways.

What would grassroots AI look like?

  • I remembered years ago that a wife of a NASA engineer, in a pub where we all hung out, showed me her phone and told me “see..this is our space programme in Mexico!”. It was just a firework going off, and it was a tongue in cheek joke. But the other side of that cheek is the idea of what it means to grow up in a place without a Space programme; what it means to grow up not seeing like you suit up to explore new worlds.
  • Similarly, what would grassroots AI look like? I’ve been thinking about things like code-switching, and how that isn’t represented in AI today, in our natural language processing systems, because it wasn’t made for people like us who codeswitch. But codeswitching is something that is so natural to us; tune in to any dancehall song or rapso and you hear artistes switch between colloquial phrases; in and out like they are weaving a tapestry with words.
  • Allegory is also significantly a part of our literature and the arts. I think that allegory is also a form of resistance, because it embeds hidden meaning for those who can unlock those meanings, almost like a cipher of some sort. A lot of this is tied to our griot history and was brought over to us from Africa. But it isn’t just Africa; in Indian dance (which is quite popular in my home country), people tell stories with their hands.


  • One of the shows I remember vividly, that I sat in on, when I was learning in the theatre world, was this show called “Mary could dance”. It’s one of the most popular theatre shows ever performed locally for general audiences (even though some of it is explicit). It had encore after encore. It’s a romantic comedic play, but it does intellectual code-switching, as well. In the case of Mary, she is “a dancer on Broadway”, but she is an exotic dancer on Broadway, Port of Spain. And the play is filled with local music, and it was a wild ride every time I sat in on it.
  • Another play I remember vividly was Ti-Jean, because I remembered in the first version I saw of it, my cousin was in the play (I have a long heritage in the Arts) and at the end of the play, he lifted me up onto the stage, and I couldn’t find my parents, so I started crying on stage, in front of everyone. But I remember how the play made physical waves using cloth. It’s a familiar tale of beating the Devil, and the music is amazing, written by this musical genius. I’m not even kidding; he was compared to Bob Dylan.

So I guess

  • I guess that a lot of my experience has been about making, and thinking about our history, and trying to find parallels in whatever space I am a part of. And about memory and identity and belonging. It’s not so far off from AI, isn’t it?
  • I have been thinking lately about what many authors speak about with respect to post-colonialism and being multi-racial, which is a sort of schizophrenia of identities. Could we embed that into our AI? So much of AI feels like it was made for one person, with one identity, but being multi-racial by its very definition means that you have multiple identities, some of which are in direct conflict with each other, almost like GANs. Identities at war. It would be an interesting concept to explore.

And that’s it

Written on July 17, 2020