Shaping 21st Century AI – Controversies and Closure in Media, Policy, and Research

“Artificial Intelligence” (AI) is currently in its formative stage. Politicians, experts and start-up founders tell us that AI will change how we live, communicate, work and travel tomorrow. Autonomous vehicles, the detection of illnesses, automated filtering of misinformation and hate speech – AI is seemingly set out to fix fundamental problems of our societies. At the same time, substantive concerns are raised that these developments might reinforce social and economic inequality, exacerbate the opacity of decision-making processes, and ultimately question human autonomy. Moreover, the direction of the scientific field itself is up for dispute, with leading practitioners of machine learning publicly disagreeing about the long-term importance of different approaches to designing and training these artificial agents.

This conjunction of dynamic technological developments, fundamental controversies and massive investments sets the scene for the project Shaping AI. This multinational collaboration of partners in Germany, France, UK and Canada offers a comparative, longitudinal inquiry into how AI as a sociotechnical phenomenon is being integrated into our societies. 

The project employs diverse sets of methods, including historical, ethnographic, and computational methods and the Media Lab’s cartographie de controverses, to investigate the discourse and developments around AI’s “deep learning revolution” over the ten formative years from 2012 to 2021 in the four partner countries and across three key domains. The media analysis investigates AI debates in major news outlets, niche websites and social media conversation. The policy analysis maps and analyze the existing policy initiatives, whitepapers and regulations in each country. The research analysis maps publication archives and scientific communities and experiments with ethnographic embedding in relevant workshops and conferences where AI intersects with social issues. In addition, the project investigates and instigates formats of public engagement by hosting participatory workshops that enable stakeholders and members of the public to debate and negotiate AI pathways. 

This particular research design allows the project to retrace how 21st-century AI has been repeatedly constructed as both a problem and a solution: how throughout its brief history and unknown future, AI cultures negotiate across controversies and (apparent) closure without the scope of “AI” ever being fully defined.This international, comparative, multi-methodological study with a clear commitment to public knowledge and engagement seeks to extend and redistribute the range of expertise that is relevant to ensure that the coming of AI is truly for the greater good.

Shaping AI is a multinational collaboration by the Humboldt Institute of Internet and Society, Berlin, the medialab at Sciences Po, Paris, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methods at the University of Warwick, and the NENIC Lab at INRS Montreal, and the Algorithmic Media Observatory at Concordia University. The collaborators won a 1,7 Mio € grant awarded by the partners’ national research foundations in the highly competitive Open-Research-Area (ORA) scheme.

The project builds on previous and ongoing work at the HIIG in this space such as the discursive and political construction of AI and the research program on the Evolving Digital Society.

Duration02/2021 – 01/2024
FundingFörderlinie Open-Research-Area (ORA) von DFG, ANR, ESRC, SSHRC
PartnersMedialab at Sciences Po, Paris, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methods (CIM) at the University of Warwick, and the NENIC Lab at INRS Montreal, and the Algorithmic Media Observatory at Concordia University


Christian Katzenbach, Dr.

Head of research programme: The evolving digital society