Blog: Arresting AI-Da

Egypt's security forces have detained a British artificial artist, causing a minor diplomatic incident. The robot, AI-Da, and its work, form an art installation due to open this week as part of the Forever is Now exhibition. The robot was detained by border security because it (she?) has cameras built into its eyes, as well as having modems to facilitate internet connection; as such, it was a potential spy! This (over)reaction is particularly remarkable given that the vast majority of people crossing borders, even tourists, are now in possession of a smartphone, devices which combine many mouth-watering possibilities for spying. 

The incident highlights a particular disparity and paradox in our thinking about data, privacy, and security, and about what constitutes a lawful or an unlawful invasion of these things. Can a single, camera-armed robot constitute a national security threat in a world armed with smartphones, unrestrained social media companies, and state-sponsored spyware? Certainly, it seems less alarming than Ghost Robotics’ latest creation of a gun-wielding cyber dog.

With Facebook metaphorically in the dock, we can hope that these issues are about to be more fully considered in legislation and regulation. In the meantime, it is inspiring to think that, in our work as digital scholars, as critical progenitors of innovation, knowledge, and analysis, we are contributing to understanding these issues more completely. Hopefully we are informing decision-making around them, and, within the academic context, educating people to be more algorithmically- and data-literate, so that we can better understand the separation between real and imagined threats, and contribute more fully to these important debates. 

Sign up for one of our newsletters to receive stories like this one, plus event listings, funding opportunities, and digital humanities updates for the University of Oxford.