Jo Burnham is Marketing Campaigns Manager for Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival and is also a freelance speaker and trainer on AI for the UK cultural sector.
You can drop Jo a message here to discuss all things AI!
In my professional life, I’ve never encountered a training topic which generates more of an emotional reaction than AI. Surveys often paint a picture of anxiety and uncertainty, and in conversations I’ve frequently encountered anger, enthusiasm, and downright fear.
This is especially true when speaking to my colleagues in the arts. Some are worried it will replace them, plagiarise them, or (especially if they’re a little older) represent a moment they always feared: the inevitable turning point when society and its emerging tools become far too technical and complicated to comprehend or keep up with.
Time to bow out gracefully and let the younger generations, probably from Brighton and sporting pink hair and piercings (AKA yours truly), take over?
I would argue most definitely not. In fact, if you’re fortunate enough to be of an age where you can remember the earlier days of personal computing and the emergence of the internet, I believe you have an enormous advantage when it comes to exploring AI and cultivating a productive mindset.
This is because, although AI seems like unchartered territory, we’ve been here before.
We even have maps. (Okay, sometimes these are doodles, but stick with me.)
Think back to when you first started learning about the internet, whether this was when it first emerged or when you were first fully exposed to it. Consider what you actually found helpful: was it learning about the nuts and bolts of HTTP and how packet switching allowed everything to slot together? Or, more likely, was it learning how the technology enabled you to communicate with people more easily, discover new interests, or provide an avenue for your creativity and curiosity?
Let’s bring this back to AI. Right now, because a lot of us don’t know where to begin, we’re spending our energies trying to understand the underlying technology of AI (the equivalent of something like packet switching for the internet). Or, when that feels understandably oblique and technical, we’re instead focusing on what features of AI we should be scared about: perhaps plagiarism, exploitation, discrimination, and propaganda - to name just a few which are particularly resonant to my colleagues in the arts.
What I suggest, though, is that the most helpful approach to learning about AI, for most people in the arts, might not be centred on its technical structure or its criticisms. Like the early days of personal computing and the Internet, we should instead experiment with its applications – and in doing so, free ourselves from the notion that an up-to-date textbook or guide to best practice exists to guide us. As of this moment in time, it does not: we must develop the confidence and wherewithal to begin writing it ourselves.
Effective AI exploration isn’t about attending one training session every year and saving a nicely formatted PDF of tips and tricks to some remote corner of our organisation’s shared drive. It’s about developing a habit of curiosity, an intellectual playfulness, and recognising that we have a valid voice in relation to this technology and how it is applied in our sector and wider society.
If that sounds a bit lofty, think of it like this: what advice would you give to somebody, who lives in 1995, about how to learn and engage with the internet? I expect many of the same general principles you would suggest will guide you wisely over the next few years; with a bit of curiosity and experimentation, you might even turn out to be your own best teacher.
So, where to now?
If you’re completely new to AI in all its forms and applications, nothing beats getting first-hand experience and trying out a wide range of different tools yourself. I often recommend a website called Future Tools which hosts links and user scores of thousands of different AI tools. You can search by category and sort the results so the most ‘upvoted’ are displayed first, giving you a quick insight into the most impactful tools within each area.
You might also be interested in increasing your background knowledge of AI, particularly if you find it interesting to learn more about the technology and its developments. If so, a great place to start might be the recent State of AI Report 2023 which is highly respected, or a YouTube channel called AI Explained which has a more technical focus but might give you lots of ideas.
Alongside this, I would suggest it’s valuable to create a dedicated place in your organisation where you can playfully discuss your recent AI experiments with your colleagues. This might be a dedicated channel on Teams, or a few minutes at the end of a weekly catch-up meeting. Doing this might keep you all motivated to explore emerging tools, inspire each other with your results, and be a constructive space to critically discuss how the technology could be used for other purposes.
Part of your journey with AI should be hearing a wide range of voices and being open to continually challenging your preconceptions. Within this blog series for Mobius, I hope that will just be the beginning; you’ll hear from several colleagues who are all approaching AI from their unique experiences and perspectives, and hopefully will inspire and provoke you to consider this incredible technology from plenty of different angles.
But beyond that, I also want to encourage you to consider your own voice, and your own judgement, each step of the way. You will always be the best expert at assessing what tools improve your own work, and you shouldn’t feel tempted to be quickly swayed by hype or intimidated by technical jargon.
With all the changes AI might soon bring, your voice in this discussion is irreplaceable, whether it’s positive, critical, or likely a mixture of both. I hope that as you experience and learn more about these tools, you’ll genuinely enjoy getting involved in these discussions - our sector will certainly be richer for it.
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