A Polymath in this New Renaissance: An Interview with Valerie Morginat
4 April, 2023
Avoiding the boxes, Virtual Reality in scuba diving and AI as an Ancient Wish.
By Tess Buckley
Valerie is a Polymath by trade, CEO of Intelligent Story, and an Associate Professor of AI strategy and ethical AI design. A Global AI expert, and interactive design leader, with cross-functional experience in business, government, and academia. She holds a Ph.D. from Sorbonne University, two certifications from MIT in AI strategy and ML and is certified by IDF in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality design and is the recipient of over 25 international awards for her photography. Valerie has worked as a tenured associate professor of cinema and interactive arts at the University of Montpellier, a government-appointed policy advisor, she’s devised inclusive forward learning reforms and transferred high-value technology into the public sector. She has led world-class teams in technology firms, healthcare, and marketing agencies, servicing a portfolio of 20+ Fortune 100 clients. She is an ethical advisor to organisations such as IEEE, Springer Nature in the UK, Women in AI in the USA, and an ambassador to the World AI Summit.
So why are we interviewing Valerie? Other than the wealth of knowledge Valerie can provide which is apparent from the description above, she is, in fact, one of the most inspiring women I have crossed paths with and so in celebration of Women’s Month we knocked on her door for a conversation which she so kindly agreed to.
One of my main fascinations with Valerie and what I find most admirable about her is how she can balance all that she does. I am enamoured by her engagement across industry, academics and creative pursuits. Valerie believes anyone can tap into the ability to create and collaborate with all aspects of oneself, pursue not just one passion but nurturing all of oneself. In this new renaissance, she exemplifies the need for and return of the polymath.
This article highlights key themes in our interview call.
- Not fitting into one box and the need for creativity in AI ethics
- The importance of stories (even those we tell ourselves)
- Scuba diving and its likeness to virtual reality: a disembodied experience of immersion
- AI as an Ancient wish seen in myths, religious texts and legends
- Womanhood: what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated field & the importance of a supportive community
Avoiding the Box
We live in a very noisy world filled with many people who are quick to want to put us in a box, to fit in, perhaps making it easier to make sense of what can be expected from a given person. Valerie notes that even from a young age she never ‘fit a box’ and this has proven to be her greatest gift. Throughout our call, it became clear that Valerie’s passions are connected and reflected within each other, in this way, she continuously collaborates with different aspects of herself. Creativity seems to be a necessity for the life Valerie leads, it manifests in her photography but is even seen in the form of strategy for her business or advisory roles.
This desire to not be stuck in a box led Valerie to study Arts, where she was able to learn and grow in a field where you do not have to be just one thing. She accepted an offer to the University of Paris where she took on her BA (Fine Arts and Literature), MA (Fine and Studio Art), M.Res (Fine Arts) and then a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy, Arts and Art Sciences). You can clearly see the journey of an artist from studio to scientific thought and everything in between. This flexibility in form is why she chose Arts or as she says, “it chose me.”
Since a young age, Valerie’s main passion was drawing “I was equally as passionate about the arts at age 5, yet I was equally passionate about science fiction movies and robots. So, I think everything is interconnected.” It is true Valerie is multidisciplinary and this is what allows her to approach a situation with depth, created by her wealth of knowledge from many points of view. She admits this sometimes creates “friction in her personal life” because she spends so much time reading, working, or creating that she neglects to venture outside.
So how does she balance it all? Like everyone else, she sleeps eight hours per night (I made sure to ask), and so she credits her ability to perform in many arenas to her passion and energy. This passion flows through all aspects of her life, when she paints, draws, or works with generative AI to create AI-assisted images. This is the same energy she uses to teach students about the history of art or responsible AI. The same energy she uses to advise clients in healthcare or security and safety about what type of technology to use. It is all a matter of energy; Valerie sees the need for creativity in everything we touch, and she emphasizes that there is a need for creativity in the regulatory and AI ethics spaces.
This claim may seem counterintuitive, as the AI space is occupied by many technical people (coders) and from the outside looking in it seems that the space is only conducive to those in STEM subjects. I ask her to further explain; “Why is creativity important in AI ethics and policy?” Valerie notes that without creativity we create boxes which artificial intelligence will be able to escape, bringing new risks, challenges and opportunities. The space is much more dynamic and should be more multidisciplinary than it is now.
This sentiment stirs a memory of what Vilas Dhar (President, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation) shared as keynote speaker at the Athens Roundtable; he rightly reminds us that the dangers of AI and digital technologies are not just relevant for “tech geeks and policy woks” and that this must be reflected by an effort to expand the conversational space. We agree that conversations with artists, philosophers and anthropologists which move beyond policy and into social impact are his second request.
Valerie reminds herself of her past saying that a good prediction or connecting thread in her life is that she was never meant to be in one discipline. Investing all her energy into one discipline was not the way to go because one discipline alone cannot achieve anything that is sustainable. According to Valerie, everything is a sociotechnical challenge. This is reflected now in the technology discipline with industry beginning to realise that not all technical problems will be solved with code in the way we think. We need the input of disciplines that are seemingly not connected to the things we do. “This is a very old topic, everyone used to be a polymath during the Renaissance because the culture was very different.” When Leo Da Vinci was alive it was the cultural norm to be a poet, painter, geologist, and astronomer. Valerie shares that AI, as a generalist itself is bringing this back to optimise processes. We now must ask how AI is applied to farming, art, to finance, we are entering into a new renaissance which is interesting itself. Yet currently, the systems being applied everywhere and used by everyone (AI) are made by a small group of the same types of people.
AI for Art & AI as Art: Scuba Diving and Other Virtual Realities
Alongside her work in AI, Valerie is an award-winning photographer, a series which caught my eye in 2019 titled ‘Auras’ is an underwater night photography study. Valerie's photography is focused on portraits underwater, she credits this to being a scuba diver for many years, born in New Caledonia, a beautiful tropical island, where the coral reef and fish were her backyards. Living in the water was normal. Initially, she took these underwater photos to share the scuba diving experience with others, the beauty of the natural world with those who were afraid of putting their head underwater. Later it became something else entirely, Valerie realised the experiences she was having underwater were like that of being in a virtual world.
The similarities between VR and scuba diving can be seen in being disembodied, relieved from gravity and yet a very rich and intense experience, completely different from the day-to-day experience. There is a correlation between the power of immersion in virtual worlds with the release that the underwater world facilitated. These similarities led Valerie to turn from taking images of sharks and coral to taking lots of self-portraits underwater, eventually leading to portraits of others. These projects reflected how being immersed in an environment that is not usual, changes our perception of our day-to-day. This kind of immersion whether in virtual or underwater worlds forces us to look at things differently.
The first word that came to my mind when Valerie shared her love of scuba diving was ‘submerged’ or being ‘removed’ from what we know. Often when one returns from being in a body of water, they are filled with a newfound appreciation for spaces they once occupied because in their absence their presence is realised.
Virtual Reality (VR) at the time of Valerie’s water studies was called Second Life (launched in 2005), in this virtual world, you could create an avatar and build anything you desired. She spent many hours as her avatar immersed in her Second Life world, noting it felt eerily familiar to the sensations of being underwater. Spending time underwater, scuba diving and taking portraits was an equivalent experience to VR for Valerie.
Valerie quite literally ‘dove’ deep into her immersed experience from an artistic perspective, thinking through new concepts which she was teaching as a professor at the time in digital arts and cinema. She would tell her students how in the future “we would be able to experience virtual reality and be forced to engage with images produced by AI.” This leads us to today, 20 years later we are experiencing what she spoke of then with GenAI booming and IP lawsuits flying. This is a clear example of how working as a creative or photographer, in Valerie’s case, can assist in expanding one’s thinking as an academic and researcher in reflecting on the future of VR and new media.
Electricity and Generative AI: The Age of the Polymath, A New Renaissance
“Generative AI will give rise to millions of applications, it is going to be like electricity.” It is true that electricity caused many people who were manually switching on lamps in the streets to lose their jobs. They went on strikes and riots when they heard that electricity was going to all of the sudden threaten their livelihood but in reality, these people found placement in other things and actually purposed electricity in their new roles. Valerie believes we will see this iterative pattern dotted across history with generative AI.
Valerie is quick to point out the key difference between the electricity era and the generative AI era, which is that electricity was a technology that gave rise to other technical infrastructure. Generative AI is not just a technology, it is a new approach to culture. Generative AI is a cultural revolution, and it is one that really touches the core of humanity as a species that is separate from others. It touches on our ability to tell stories with words, images, music and structured or multi-media forms. Therefore, creatives and philosophers will find their skillset very useful and relevant in the coming years.
Valerie sees technology as art and technologist as artists. She notes the word technology itself is the art of creating things, coming from the Greek words techne and logos, techne means art, skill, or craft, while Logos means word, the expression of inward thought. People from the humanities are needed not just to operationalise technology but to consider million-old historical impacts and reconsider what we call culture and human civilisation. Developers need more than other data scientists and other developers, they absolutely need creative people, philosophers, anthropologists, and ethnographers. These topics are supported by people in the humanities and are as much needed as people who know how to code.
I share a fear of growing old and into a career without creativity with Valerie; as we begin to further our careers, we often leave our creative pursuits behind, in the dust of childhood joy with our drum sets gaining dust and brushes buried in papers… Perhaps our creative bandwidth is purposed elsewhere in our writing and analysis. I cannot help but feel that if one lets go of the practice which facilitates and challenges creative thoughts one could by accident stagnate growth, resulting in the opposite of what is desired. Valerie’s response reassures me that there are in fact benefits to being an ‘artist’ in a space that is often occupied by more technical practices. Valerie is a polymath, able to balance her creative and professional pursuits not separately but intertwined.
Often when we strive for and thrive in excellence, we put our own needs and creativity on the sideline because there is simply not enough time. Consistently putting pressure on oneself to deliver the best possible work and one will, but at some point, a creative will not feel happy if they let themselves go without their creative pursuit practice. It is always important to make time for creativity. We live in an era where finally polymaths are beginning to be centred and celebrated. Valerie notes her excitement about being in a place where her artistic and philosophical background can be purposed in a space that is highly dominated by technology. Now there is room for creatives to bring forward the need for innovation.
Putting AI in Context: An Ancient Wish
Valerie believes that narratives are important, and not just because they are what bring communities together and helped us survive as a species throughout millennia, but because she profoundly thinks that there would not be any AI if there were not stories of animism. In a sense, our mythologies, our legends, our religions are amplified legends. They are all stories, whether of spiritual encounter or more. These ensembles that we call myths, religions, legends, are the very first laboratories in which humans began thinking about ways to expand their life beyond the mortality of their bodies. In the next piece of our call, Valerie describes AI as an ancient wish, a fantasy which is starting to take form. I cannot help but think of the god complex exhibited by some innovators and I begin to realise that AI development is so much bigger than us, an ancient wish that we could bring to fruition, hopefully in a responsible way.
Valerie begins; this first fantasy of AI can be seen in the traces of that in mythologies and legends which take the form of robots or objects that begin to talk as an intelligent being, or objects that assist us in doing things and improving our lives. These animas became ways for ancient cultures to expand their ability to transmit stories and values to other generations. They did this by projecting their memory, thoughts and beliefs on papers or marbles that they carved, but these are techniques and technologies. progressively we started giving thoughts and personalities to our objects, we started giving names to our objects and spiritual life to the trees or rocks around us. To the stars and to the universe. Here are clear examples of us projecting imagery to the unanimated. This is exactly how AI started, this is the primitive story of AI. Our desire to prolong ourselves, our culture within the objects we create.
The story of AI is very old and Valerie sees it as important to tell this story to machine learning engineers because it gives them a bigger responsibility to carry. They also understand that this did not start just seventy years ago or even twenty years ago, it is in fact an ancient wish and fantasy which is starting to take form. She emphasises that we have the responsibility to give it a form that serves us and the planet with other species. Viewing the creation of AI not from just a human perspective, but with empathy and animal life considered.
The past is a great mirror for the future, there is no better predictor than the past, even in the story of our own lives. Sense of history, broader scale history can allow for insights starting with the theme of predictions about AI made years ago which when made sounded outrageous but are now a reality. Valerie asks us to think of even a philosophical non-computation approach to AI such as Leibniz, or to the computational history of AI such as Rodney Brookes's prediction in the 60s about AGI making its way to us in 5 years. Those who were at the beginning of computational AI were the very people often making ‘outlandish’ predictions. The past provides indicators for how we should contextualise our role in AI and its responsible development.
On Womenhood: Community and Connection.
Connection: Valerie’s experience as an AI ethicist and Responsible AI advisor
Valerie’s network is essentially a female-dominated community. She does not believe that this is due to personal bias as she makes sure to engage equally with men and women during her life. She has found more women interested in topics of AI ethics and there is more solidarity and will in women to connect with other women in the space. The says that support is incredible for women working in data science and responsible AI, they are open to following up, engaging and connecting you to their networks and most explicitly volunteering themselves pro-bono. Much of the public engagement is pro-bono and many women do this to share the messages as far as possible. She notes (from her vantage point) that she does not see as many men being proactive in strong networks of solidarity.
I ask Valerie to further discuss her community of women and the special bonds we can form from ground zero and further explain her desire to engage with AI literacy training for free.
We discuss empathy as a trait that is often characterised as ‘inherit’ in women. She poses that women aren't necessarily more empathetic and that perhaps the world has been dominated by certain narratives of the man as the warrior and provider. Is it these narratives of patriarchy that supersede other narratives? In Polynesia, matriarchy was once very important, but not anymore. Many of these ancient matriarchal cultures have since been lost to the dark. Women are not necessarily more empathetic because of hormones and motherhood, but instead of a society developing in a way that framed a certain role for women and therefore women have developed their emotional intelligence as a means of survival. We fall further into nature versus nurture debates, pulling on ideas in feminist and gender studies, we consider gender as a social construct.
Valerie shares a parting message to younger women…
Having a seat at the table is not enough, once you (women) have it do not be afraid of your voice. Be aware of the impact that you can have. She knows it can be intimidating as a young female professional in a male-dominated space or with a male boss.
Valerie hopes to see more women using their lived experiences that encompass a lot of struggles and stories of resilience that men do not necessarily experience because the world is more favorable to them currently. Women can use what they have been through to contribute to building more responsible AI products because we need our stories to be told by more women as most are still told by men who have more access to platforms and audiences.
Do not hesitate to contact higher-level executives, reach out and tell them your story and ask questions. Ask the women that inspire you how they can help you succeed because they likely will.
“We are willing to help and see more women in this space. Do not be intimidated, now is our time.”
The Future: Upcoming Projects
Valerie is currently working on a project that celebrates women, its title ‘Pacific Queens’ hints at its purpose; portraits of Indigenous women from her home country in the Pacific Ocean to celebrate them through underwater portraits. All underwater, a celebration of women's resilience.