AI: African Intelligence, by Manthia Diawara, is a return to specific patterns of hermetic knowledge in African culture. To compare African rituals with proceedings of artificial intelligence seems a considerable challenge. But Manthia Diawara, in the company of scientists from quite different faculties, opens up to astonishing reflections about culture and knowledge. Moreover, the documentary, presented at Berlinale’s «Forum Expanded» section, invokes a threat. In confrontation with Western expanding colonizing technologies and managements, African cultures are on the losing track. Technological to digital revolutions are fabricating a dominating rationality of structuring life, which put all marginal civilizations in a doubly menacing position, to lose their own culture and to be reduced to passive receivers of an algorithm-based controlling technology, which they can’t master.
But let’s remind ourselves, as Dr Raoul Frese, Professor for Biophysics, states, that Western technological «knowledge» is quite limited, even in the most scientific sense. Ninety per cent of the universe is made out of matter, which we don’t know about. We can predict or determine processes and objects, but only in controlled conditions. The purely mathematical approach of fabrication facilities can’t be compared with a profound understanding of how «it» really works and what «it» really is. Actual sciences aren’t based on only one main formula to interpret reality but on different ones, which can’t be connected or applied in different reality domains.
Manthia Diawara spent five days in the Senegalese culture observing the Ndeup Dance in a village near Dakar. Growing up in Mali and later studying in Western art schools, possession dances had been simply something to be avoided for him. But now he is confronted with performed rituals in which spirits possess dancers, a risky situation because welcoming or evil forces can inhabit them. Mostly, the wild ritual dances have a therapeutic function. The possessed sometimes can – through the spirit – speak out their mental troubles. The surrounding community controls possible outbreaks of physical aggression. Their helpful guidance during these voyages has by themselves a therapeutic effect.
The oldest woman in the village is Mère-Bi (Marymata Seck). She is the highest priestess, not only protecting the directors and his film project against possible threats but also executing as the main figure the rituals.
This fragile woman of around 90 years old performs the ritual dance in the central marketplace three times, morning, midday and night, for five days every week, surrounded by a huge village crowd, throwing herself in the air and on the ground. It isn’t easy to understand where this power comes from. «It’s not me; it’s the spirit acting through me», she explains.
Everybody is invited to enter the market circle to meet the spirits. The dance for most of the transcended actors has a significant function to take back their inner balance and sometimes even physical health. Rhythmic drumming accompanies the dances, and a singing-surrounding crowd welcoming the spirits.
We can predict or determine processes and objects, but only in controlled conditions.
Automatic learning, also called deep or machine learning of artificial intelligence, remains an unknown process. Scientists try to understand how this proceeding takes place. For the moment, the results of these machine executions could be more predictable. We teach machines to understand, but how they understand isn’t evident. To understand how algorithms proceed to understand is one of the most challenging questions in actual sciences. Evidently, machine learning is different to human learning, based on brain functions. It’s not proceeding by trial and error, not by learning through time, not by repeating observations or integrating expertise knowledge.
The fascinating question is, how can we get something relevant out of the knowledge-creating process of algorithms? How can we extract something from the knowledge of the algorithm? Actually, AI is applied to preserve Western lifestyles and culture by facilitating our daily tasks and transferring our culture to the next generations. But what would happen if AI integrated different cultural patterns and reality concepts?
Mamadou Diouf, Professor of History and African Studies points out another difference between Western knowledge, based on demonstration, and African forms of knowledge, which are always directed, contextualized and culturally based. Rituals follow to be respected rules, or they fail their purpose. In other words, African forms of knowledge are always applied knowledge and not abstract, unrelated entities.
Let’s add here that recent studies open up to acknowledge that conscience is not only produced or limited to physiological brain proceedings, but other forms of knowledge can also enter the perception. PSI phenomenons are empirically verified, but we still need a theory to understand them (Dark Cognition, by David Vernon, Abingdon 2021).
Manthia Diawara offers forms of labyrinthic movements between the statements of scientists while at the same time just observing people, streets and mainly the marketplace as the ritual centre. His camera holds on to this for minutes. On his initiative, the community leader Makhou Lebougui visits the priestess in her house. To the director’s surprise, Lebougui, reversing the causality, interprets this meeting to assure that the priestess has something important to offer to him.
Diawara’s primary intention, repeatedly pronounced from the off, is the defence and protection of cultural diversity as the real richness of humanity. Not only for him but also for all the present scientists, the confrontation with the Ndeup dance will sharpen the deciding question about the future of humanity. Will the computer algorithms proceedings in AI lead to an even more rational, structured and controlled society and civilization, where it will be even forgotten what we have lost, or can – as again Raoul Frese evokes – AI be an opening to another kind of investigating world and nature, in a more inclusive way, where you let interaction take place to overpass the absolutely deterministic way of western world handling? That would be «a good outcome.»
Or again, in the words of Manthia Diawara, AI could help to hear the voices of everywhere, different voices of the globe, as every place has the power to teach the world an aspect of humanism.