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Age of AI

The Smithsonian is exploring the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) for research and discovery—and to create a better shared future for all. 

Engaging AI to Share Knowledge

By Becky Kobberod, the Smithsonian’s Head of Digital Transformation

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) is not new to the Smithsonian; many of our staff have been using these tools for years to accelerate research, enhance the institution’s collections and automate internal processes. Experts from around the Smithsonian, including my own Office of Digital Transformation, have been engaging deeply with AI projects and discussions across our sector, and speaking and publishing on the promise and pitfalls of this technology to transform educational, scientific and cultural heritage organizations.

But with the rise in generative AI (technology that can generate text, images or other media), the use of these tools to collect, organize and disseminate information is becoming increasingly prevalent. It is transforming how the world finds and shares knowledge.

At the Smithsonian, we are exploring the practical uses of generative AI, experimenting with how it might help us engage with public audiences in new, innovative ways and how it can transform our internal processes to increase the speed and efficiency of our work. We are also exploring a uniquely valuable role the institution might play as a trusted source in the development of AI tools. Given how these AI models are built, they require accurate, reliable information on which to learn to ensure their future outputs are true.

Drawing on more than 175 years of collections, research and scholarship, the Smithsonian can make well-curated, factual data available for AI training purposes, allowing the institution to play an important, yet practical, role in ensuring these models are informed by trusted, accurate information.

Beyond thinking practically about these tools, there are larger questions to consider when it comes to AI. In a world where machines will soon be able to automate many cognitive tasks, how will society continue to value the power and primacy of human ideas, creativity and lived experience?

Museums, archives and libraries are stewards of cultural values, and being human-centered is one of our sector’s core tenets. The Smithsonian is a dedicated keeper of America’s unique knowledge capital—art, science, history and culture. AI systems should amplify these human capabilities, not replace them.

While there are concerns about bias, ethics and safety in some of the biggest AI products, the Smithsonian stands steadfastly for values like scholarly research, scientific exploration and creative expression. Machines don’t hold values or culture—only people do.

So, while the age of AI stands to boost the work of the Smithsonian, it also makes what the Smithsonian provides to the nation more precious and important than ever: a reservoir of knowledge encompassing our nation’s ingenuity, culture, exploration and achievement, and a reliable source of human truths that the public can rely on to navigate our shared future.

Artificial Intelligence: Software or computer systems that emulate aspects of human cognition.

Exploring AI Across the Smithsonian

Smithsonian experts are applying artificial intelligence (AI) across diverse disciplines, making promising discoveries about our planet and universe, and inspiring visitors to learn in new ways.

Published Winter 2024 in IMPACT Vol. 10. No 1

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