Celebrating Our First Anniversary!

Dr. Alex Hanna, Director of Research

We’re happy to publish this report on the Distributed AI Research Institute's (DAIR) first annual retreat and our anniversary celebration event. We were filled with joy and elation at meeting many of our colleagues in person for the first time, and taking a respite from the stressors of daily life. But we also want to note how the end of the retreat was marred by anti-Blackness and racism which marks the establishment of borders and restrictions to freedom of travel. We want to hold that fact while also elevating the joy and celebration of our collective work in our first full year.

The Farm at Finca Luna Nueva

We spent six days at the Finca Luna Nueva, a regenerative agriculture farm next to the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in central Costa Rica. Luna Nueva is named for the lunar cycles tied closely to the efficacy of herbal medicines grown there, including oregano, turmeric, and ginger. We learned about indigenous uses of cacao pre-European colonization, the uses and makings of herbal medicines, and about the amazing biodiversity of the Costa Rican rain forest during birding tours and night hikes.

On the left, the volcano La Fortuna pictured in the distance down a road. A ring of clouds surrounds the top. In the top right, members of the DAIR team sit attentively in front of a broad table filled with different herbs and roots in a herbal medicine workshop. In the bottom right, members of the DAIR team are looking particularly touristy, crossing a road in front of an Italian restaurant.On the left, one of our instructors at Finca Luna Nueva stands in the rainforest, holding a cacao seed pod that’s been split in half. The instructor is wearing a green shirt with the words “Sacred Seeds” written on it. On the right, a three-toed sloth is hanging upside-down from its feet. The sloth has crooked its head to the side, as if it's looking at us with a puzzled look.On the left, Research Fellow Asmelash Teka smiles and is looking down. A large moth is on the shoulder of his white v-neck shirt. In the top right, Research Engineer Dylan Baker is smiling and lying face down on a couch in the Casa Luna area with their feet up. In the bottom right, Research Fellow Mila Miceli is sitting on a couch in the Casa Luna with lots of rainforest in the background. She is smiling with both hands up as she’s talking into a laptop.

Although we work on artificial intelligence and its (mis)uses, we also recognize that this technology needs to help humans connect and being in “right relationship” with the land. Working, laughing, and connecting together at Finca Luna Nueva was a much needed respite and reprieve from much of the pressures of the normal academic and industry-driven grind of the typical AI world.

DAIR’s First Anniversary Celebration

We held our first annual DAIR anniversary celebration on December 2 and 3, with researchers from DAIR presenting their work to our broader community. On Day 1, our Executive Director Dr. Timnit Gebru introduced our group and what we’ve accomplished in the past year. DAIR’s establishment came exactly one year after Timnit was ousted from Google, and now serves as a day of celebration for different AI futures.

Research Fellow Asmelash Teka discussed his work with Lesan.ai, a startup focused on providing a broad range of technology for languages used in Ethiopia and Eritrea. He discussed machine translation and automated speech recognition for Ge’ez based languages, and the need to keep data fuelling these technologies in the hands of people who speak these languages rather than a few multinational corporations.

A screenshot of the Lesan.ai interface. On the left is a box which reads some example text in English, “Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge int he form of testable explanations and predictions about the university. Machine translation investigates the use of software to translate text or speech from one language to another. Excerpt from Wikipedia.” On the right is a box which is a translation of that text to Tigrinya.

Timnit held a conversation with Research Fellow Meron Estefanos, in which they talked about Meron’s activism as a refugee advocate who has rescued more than 16,000 victims of trafficking. Meron discussed the extent to which she has faced transnational repression in the course of her work, and how calls to attack her on social media result in violence: for example, after calls to injure her circulated on Facebook and Twitter, she was attacked eight times in a single evening. Timnit concluded with a discussion of how refugees are the first to experience the harms of experimental AI technology on the ground. You can learn more about Meron’s work in the 2013 documentary Sound of Torture and this episode of the podcast This American Life.

A Zoom screenshot of Timnit Gebru and Meron Estefanos. Timnit is on the left, wearing her hair in an afro and wearing a maroon shirt, along with a headset for listening and speaking. Meron is on the right, wearing her hair in brains and wearing a blue scoop-necked top. She is standing outside. Both of them are smiling widely.

Research Engineer Dylan Baker talked about how billionaires have taken over the imaginary of technological futures, and how we need to take back that imaginary. Instead of continually playing on the back foot, what would it mean to build something new? He concluded by introducing our forthcoming Possible Futures series where we will further explore this question.

To conclude day 1 of our event, Timnit moderated a conversation between Meron, Asme, and Dylan on re-imagining tech futures.

During Day 2 of our anniversary celebration, Director of Research Dr. Alex Hanna guided us in a set of sessions focused on alternative uses of technology and research. Research Fellow Adrienne Williams discussed massive amounts of wage theft committed by Amazon against its delivery drivers. She demonstrated how extra standup meetings, time taken for remedial actions by Amazon’s “Mentor” application, and AI-powered cameras in trucks penalized drivers, and quantified the scale of wage theft, which is at the levels of upwards of thousands of dollars in stolen wages per year, per worker.

Research Fellow Raesetje Sefala presented her work on using computer vision to detect the persistence of spatial apartheid in South Africa. Although Apartheid legally ended in 1991, the difference between townships, where non-white people were forced to live in, and suburbs is still clear. Those who grow up in townships, like Raesetje, know that the services they receive are much worse than those in the suburbs. Raesetje showed her dataset, in which she and others raised in townships annotated geo-located satellite images with their neighborhood types, including townships and suburbs. She also demonstrated her computer vision tool, which labels different neighborhood types. These tools will allow those who live in townships to advocate for better resources, including better government service allocation.

A screenshot from Raesetje’s presentation. There are four panels. The top right caption reads “2011 Satellite image” and shows a satellite image of a city in South Africa, with both densely-populated townships and sparsely populated suburbs. In the bottom right caption reads “2017 Satellite image” and is similar to the 2011 image, but is much more densely populated. In the top left, the caption reads “2011 ground truth” and has several gray circles, marking townships in the image on the right. The bottom left caption reads “2017 AI model predictions” and features many more gray circles which correspond with the dense townships in the image to its right.

Visiting Tecnológico de Costa Rica

Upon leaving Finca Luna Nueva, the DAIR team traveled to Costa Rica’s capital, San José, to visit with AI researchers living and working in the country at Tecnológico de Costa Rica (TEC, or the Costa Rican Institute of Technology). We linked up with Professors José Carranza, Saúl Calderón Ramírez, and Laura Gabren-Quiros and many of their wonderful students who took time from their full-time jobs to present and visit with us.

On the left, Professor Jose Carranza presents his team’s work on artificial intelligence for the identification of plants in the journal Nature and on the NVIDIA technical blog in an auditorium at Tecnológico de Costa Rica. On the right, Research Fellow Dylan Baker presents their talk on “Thinking About Our Technological Future” in the same auditorium.

We loved the framing that Professor Carranza set out around Costa Rica, that the country was rich with biodiversity, people desiring to work in citizen science, with a passion both for technology and nature. Many of the student presentations included using AI technology for naturalist and bioscience applications, including analysis of butterfly trajectories, mushroom spore detection on coffee plants, nematode detection in soil sampling, and plant identification with constrained resources.

Our Departure

After this restful and exciting time in Costa Rica, we were brought back to reality with threats of police action for merely existing at an international port. Prior to traveling, Asmelash’s brother Petros was denied a ticket for the flight by Iberia Airlines, being told that his EU residence permit was not sufficient for entry into Costa Rica. Iberia made this call unilaterally, without consulting anyone from the Costa Rican government. To add insult to injury, both Asme and his brother's luggage were lost en route to Costa Rica by Iberia Airlines. At the airport, on the day of our departure, Timnit, Alex, and Asme were threatened by staff and police at the Costa Rican airport for sitting in peace at a cafe, and Asme was threatened with police action for asking about his and his brother’s luggage at the Iberian Airlines ticket counter. We’ve all written extensively about this experience, and want to note that despite the hospitality and graciousness of many of the people in Costa Rica, much of the racism and anti-Blackness at borders persists everywhere.