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NEH Grant to Study Implications of AI Listening Technologies

Edward B. Kang

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Media, Culture, and Communication Assistant Professor Edward Kang, along with co-PI Juana C. Becerra Sandoval from IBM Research, will convene scholars from across the humanities to examine the relationship between machine listening systems and society.

The $149,991 grant is among 238 humanities projects that the NEH announced this week it was supporting.

Kang's project, Machine Listening in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, is one of the first scholarly initiatives to consider the social implications of machine listening systems which are quickly being embedded in medical, financial, security, surveillance, and workplace environments.

Heralded by many in tech as the ‘next frontier’ of AI, these systems extract, collect, quantify, and parametrize voice and sound with the potential to make life-altering predictions. Apple’s Siri and Amazon Alexa are well-known machine listening devices, but hidden listening infrastructures are increasingly being implemented in high stakes contexts. Some of these include voice analysis systems leveraged to make decisions about people’s employment, medical technologies that predict people’s mental health, voice biometric systems used for surveillance in prisons and law enforcement, to name just a few examples.

Through this multi-year project, the team of scholars will seek to answer the following questions: What can we learn from the history of “listening” as a technique and method adopted across various scientific and technological contexts for our study of machine listening? How is machine listening reconfiguring ideas around the body, identity, voice, and space? What is the relationship between “listening” and “objectivity” – especially in the contexts of law and science – and how does machine listening complicate that relationship? What kinds of futuristic imaginaries motivate the development of machine listening systems and whose interests are being left out?

Edward (Byungkwon) Kang is an Assistant Professor in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. His research sits at the intersection of Science & Technology Studies (STS) and Sound Studies, with a specific focus on the sociotechnical dimensions of artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) systems and the communities, cultures, and practices through which they’re enacted. He is currently writing a book (under contract, MIT Press) on the relationships between AI, voice and listening. His writing on these topics can be found in journals such as Big Data & Society; Science, Technology and Human-Values; Social Studies of Science; and the Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency.

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