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AI can’t create those things that are from the human heart.

Will society make the best use of AI? “Fingers crossed,” says this sci-fi author

Nnedi Okorafor spoke with Gavin about harnessing the power of AI to solve problems that humans cannot

Nnedi Okorafor has won two Hugo Awards and many other accolades for her best-selling science fiction novels. At the 81st World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Chengdu, China, she spoke with Huawei Editor-in-Chief Gavin Allen about harnessing the power of AI to solve problems that humans cannot.

Gavin Allen: You describe yourself as an African futurist. Can you briefly explain that term? 
Nnedi Okorafor: It’s a term I coined to describe a sub-category of science fiction specifically rooted in African culture, history, mythology, and point of view. 

It does not privilege or center the West. It's concerned with visions of the future. It’s interested in technology, skews optimistic, and is predominantly written by people of African descent. 

Gavin: Science fiction tends to skew optimistic, in a way, because it looks to the future.
Nnedi: Well, you can skew optimistic but still be a cautionary tale. Technology can be used as a solution to those issues that have plagued Africa for so long. But technology can also be a monster. It can be a beast, a source of destruction. 

Technology isn't positive or negative. By definition, technology is neutral. It's really how we use it that decides everything. As a writer, the stories I'm most interested in are the ones that emphasize the positives of technology, especially when it comes to African futures.

Gavin: Let’s talk about AI. Do you think it’s overhyped? 
Nnedi: Currently, yes, but the potential is there. Before AI was unleashed on the world, I was very optimistic. But then I saw that, almost immediately, people started using AI to potentially replace writers, illustrators, musicians, and other creative people. 

Gavin: Do you feel threatened by the prospect of AI churning out science fiction books?
Nnedi: I don't feel threatened at all. AI can't create those things that are from the human heart. They can only create what's already out there. I know the way I write, the reason that I write, and where it comes from. That's not something that AI can imitate. It's not possible.

But we are gonna see a novel written by AI that's gonna be massively popular. That's going to happen.

Gavin: What would excite you about AI? 
Nnedi: When AI starts doing things that human beings can't do! Isn't that the point? That's what excites me: true artificial intelligence, not these programs that are just aggregating materials and spitting something out. 

We should be using AI to do things that humans are not intelligent enough to do—in terms of healthcare, climate change, people with disabilities, and so on. 

Gavin: There's talk about putting guardrails around AI, or appointing some sort of referee to oversee its development. Do you think that would be worthwhile?
Nnedi: Guardrails will apply to the average person. They will not exist for those with power and money. So I don't buy any of that.

Gavin: So you’d just let it develop and hope it goes in the right direction? 
Nnedi: Certainly, if we use AI in a positive way. Will that happen? Fingers crossed!te

Gavin: As a child, you had health issues. Did that in some way drive you into sci-fi?
Nnedi: Both of my parents are Nigerian, and they've taken my siblings and me back to Nigeria since we were little kids. I started seeing cell phones in very rural parts of Nigeria. The phones were supercomputers that were chargeable. That got me thinking, “This village that doesn't have running water or electricity—what’s this place gonna be like in the future?”

On top of that, there were my medical issues. As a teenager, I had been a top-ranked athlete, then got surgery for scoliosis and woke up paralyzed from the waist down. The surgeons didn’t know why or whether I’d ever walk again. It was the darkest time in my life, and for a while, I lost my confidence in science. 

Then I started thinking about technology—our lack of control over it, but also its possibilities. My whole experience with paralysis got me thinking about the body and technology. Over time, the more writing I did, the more I saw technological advances in terms of the body. That’s really what led me to where I am now.

Gavin: Enthusiasm for sci-fi in China has taken off. How does that make you feel, to see a whole different culture embrace, and shape, the sci-fi and fantasy worlds?
Nnedi: There’s this idea that science fiction only comes from the West, and that’s wrong. Science fiction has many points of origin. Every society on earth thinks about the future. Every society has wants and needs for the future. We all have a stake in it.

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