Dr. Julia Schneider and Pauline Cremer ©Pauline Cremer

29 August 2023

"AI is often portrayed as either a dystopia that will destroy humanity or a utopia that will solve all our problems."

In their insightful comic essay "A Pigeon's Tale," AI researcher and comic essayist Dr. Julia Schneider and illustrator artist Pauline Cremer unfold a visually powerful narrative around artificial intelligence and sustainability. This unusual work takes the reader on a journey through complex issues, navigated by a pigeon, whose humorous and emblematic presence as a narrator lend slightness to the story. Compared to Dr. Schneider's previous works, the focus of "A Pigeon's Tale" is on the linkages between AI and sustainability, striving for a nuanced understanding of these issues beyond science fiction clichés. The aim of the comic is to illustrate the diverse potential, but also challenges of artificial intelligence in the context of sustainability. Schneider’s and Cremer's work is aimed at anyone interested in the intersection of AI and sustainability, regardless of their technical background. The comic emphasizes the need to understand and consciously shape the impact and control of AI.

Dr. Schneider, you have deep insight into complex technological concepts from your work as a data scientist and former AI consultant. In your comic strip "A Pigeon's Tale," you chose a rather unconventional medium to illustrate this complexity. What inspired you to make this choice and why does a pigeon guide us through the comic?

JS: The choice for a comic as a medium came from the conviction that we need to make the connection between artificial intelligence and sustainability accessible to a broader public. Because time is of the essence.

Comics offer a unique way to combine information and entertainment. The visual has a powerful effect on us and can help illustrate and simplify complex, dry topics that would otherwise be difficult to grasp or off-putting. The choice of the pigeon as narrator was multi-layered. First, the bird symbolically represents both a "dirt slinger" and a "peace bringer," which presents a similar ambivalence often found in the discussion of AI. AI has the potential to have both positive and negative impacts, depending on how we use and regulate it.

Second, pigeons are ambassadors between us humans and the rest of nature. They live in our cities and are very close to us, but they are also part of the animal kingdom. This mixture of closeness and distance, of human and nature, seems to us fitting for the topics of AI and sustainability.

Last but not least, the pigeon as narrator brings an element of humor and lightness to the often heavy topics.

How is "A Pigeon's Tale" different from your previous comic "We Need to Talk, AI"? Could you give us some insight into the thematic focus and messages you are trying to convey with the new comic?

JS: "A Pigeon's Tale" and "We Need to Talk, AI" share a common passion for communicating knowledge about Artificial Intelligence in an engaging format, but they differ in several important ways.

"We Need to Talk, AI" was my first foray into the world of comic essays. That was four years ago, an ambitious project I realized together with Lena Kadriye Ziyal. Our goal was to look at the multifaceted issues of artificial intelligence from a broad perspective and present them in an accessible way for a general readership.

The success of the book actually took us somewhat by surprise. It has been exhibited at numerous conferences and museums, including internationally, and has generated considerable media coverage. Presentations at various events and more than fifty thousand downloads from the project website, weneedtotalk.ai, have shown us that there is a real interest and need for this way of conveying information.

This experience inspired my desire to work as a comic essayist, to further explore how comics can address complex issues, and paved the way for my subsequent projects, including "A Pigeon's Tale."

Since then, I have created three more longer comic books - "Money Matters" on the topic of money, also co-authored with Pauline Cremer and with Prof. Dr. Miriam Beblo, "Chocolate Robots and Deepfakes" on the topic of AI from the perspective of young people, co-authored with Nele Konopka and Kristina Laube from the Tübingen AI Center, and the "Non-Fungible Comic" about NFTs, co-authored with Noëlle Kröger.

"A Pigeon's Tale" combines many of the themes I've been exploring over the past few years - artificial intelligence, technology, business, and social change - and brings them together to paint a bigger picture. With this comic, Pauline Cremer, the Berlin-based AI consultancy Birds on Mars, and I are trying to provide a deeper understanding of the opportunities and challenges of AI in conjunction with sustainability - without ignoring the ethical issues that arise from this connection.

The focus on sustainability is also a key difference: while AI was still considered in a standalone fashion in "We Need to Talk, AI," and the topic of sustainability was one of nearly eighty pages, "A Pigeon's Tale" focuses on how closely AI and sustainability are intertwined and the importance of understanding and leveraging that connection when we talk about sustainability.

AI is often a topic in pop culture and science fiction. How does "A Pigeon's Tale" help clear up misconceptions and myths about technology and paint a more realistic picture of its potential and challenges?

JS: "A Pigeon's Tale" attempts to paint a balanced picture of artificial intelligence. AI is often portrayed as either a dystopia that will destroy humanity or a utopia that will solve all our problems. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between, and it is this gray area that we explore in "A Pigeon's Tale."

The pigeon also serves as a metaphor for AI. Pigeons are also often misunderstood and polarize opinions - they are either revered as symbols of peace or scorned as annoying "rats of the air." Similarly, AI is often seen as either a curse or a blessing, when in truth it is a technology with potential and challenges that we need to understand and navigate.

By drawing these parallels, we help readers challenge their perceptions of AI and develop a more nuanced view of this technology.

What audience considerations influenced the design of "A Pigeon's Tale" and how is that reflected in the comic's themes, particularly in terms of education and awareness of AI and technology?

JS: The main audience for "A Pigeon's Tale" is people interested in the intersection of AI and sustainability. It is aimed at adults and young people alike, regardless of their technical background.

We tried to make the narrative and presentation as accessible as possible without neglecting the complexity of the AI issue. We used visually appealing and easy-to-understand language to overcome the barriers that prevent many people from engaging with technical topics. At the same time, we made sure to add nuance to the discussion about AI and sustainability. By combining information and art in this way, we hope to help raise awareness of the opportunities and challenges of AI in relation to sustainability, and to encourage dialogue about its role in our society.

Ms. Cremer, as an illustrator you play a central role in the visual communication ofcomplex topics, such as AI and sustainability. How did you approach the challenge of visualizing them in a simple and understandable way?

PC: I think the big advantage is actually that I'm nowhere near as immersed in the subject matter as Julia is. Of course, I've also dealt with AI before, but many of the things we deal with in the comic "Pigeon's Tale" were also new to me. As a result, my view is more objective and I try to present the topics in a way that I would also understand. In addition, we often work together on the picture level, Julia has many exciting ideas for visual implementations and the end result is then an interplay. This results in a comic that on the one hand conveys a lot of knowledge and on the other hand breaks down the complex topics visually.

What areas of the current AI and technology debate do you think are most in need of education and awareness, and how does "A Pigeon's Tale" reflect these aspects?

JS: There are many areas in the AI and technology debate that need more education and awareness, but I think two in particular stand out:

1. Ethics and responsibility: it is important that we have an informed public discussion about the ethical implications and responsibilities associated with AI. This includes issues of privacy, transparency, fairness, and oversight. "A Pigeon's Tale" addresses these aspects by also highlighting these issues and stimulating dialogue about how we can design and use this technology responsibly.

2. AI and sustainability: the area of AI that we believe requires special attention is its potential to contribute to sustainable development. There is a growing discussion about how AI can help address challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity, and social injustice. Our comic puts a special focus on this issue by highlighting the role of AI in sustainability and exploring the possibilities and limitations of AI-based solutions to sustainability issues.

In "A Pigeon's Tale," we bring these issues to the forefront and provide insights into the ongoing debate. Our goal is to facilitate a broader discussion and raise awareness of these important issues.

Your comic highlights the importance of a sustainable lifestyle. How do you see Artificial Intelligence contributing, in combination with sustainability, to ensuring the regeneration and survival of our planet within its limits?

JS: "A Pigeon's Tale" looks at Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a potential key technology to help us address the great environmental challenges of our time. AI has the potential to advance sustainability efforts through more efficient resource use, smart energy management, and data-driven environmental research.

At the same time, it is true that AI itself has a significant environmental impact. High energy consumption in data centers, resource-intensive hardware manufacturing, and even unresolved ethical issues are significant challenges that we must actively address. In this regard, the comic emphasizes that technology is not the sole solution to our environmental problems. We need change at all levels of our society, including a reexamination of our economic models and systems, which are often based on unbridled growth and short-term profit.

The message of "A Pigeon's Tale" is thus twofold: first, AI has some potential to help us shift to more sustainable practices, and second, we still urgently need to improve these technologies and use them in responsible and sustainable ways. The responsibility is on all of us, and we must act - and act quickly.

What steps can individuals, businesses, and governments take to actively help promote sustainability and responsible use of AI? How can they make the transition to a sustainable and AI-based society?

JS: Promoting sustainability and responsible AI requires a deeper shift in our society and economic systems. Individuals can do their part by educating themselves, raising their awareness, and adjusting their behavior. This can mean being more aware of technology, and trying out more sustainable ways of living in general.

Companies face the challenge of fundamentally rethinking their business models. The traditional capitalist model, based on constant growth and maximizing profits, has led us into a climate and resource crisis and is not sustainable. Companies need to start integrating sustainability and ethics into their core business strategies. This is not just about reducing carbon footprints or fair supply chains, but also about designing AI systems that serve people and do not discriminate.

Governments have the task of promoting and managing this change through appropriate frameworks. This can be done through incentive systems and regulations that reward sustainable and ethical business practices and sanction misconduct. They should also strengthen education and research in AI and sustainability.

A transition to a sustainable and AI-based society will probably not happen without a cultural transformation. We pretty much have to say goodbye to the idea that unlimited growth is sustainable. Instead, we should focus on the well-being of people and our planet. AI can be a useful tool in this, but it is not a panacea.

How do you see the future development of the AI ecosystem in Berlin in terms of sustainability? What specific challenges and opportunities do you expect for the city and its residents in the context of integrating AI and sustainable solutions?

JS: It is important that Berlin takes advantage of the opportunities that AI offers to drive sustainable solutions in various areas such as energy, mobility, environmental protection and resource management. However, the potential risks and drawbacks of AI should also be considered. In particular, data privacy, data security and protection against discrimination are crucial aspects that need to be included in the development of the AI ecosystem.

Europe, and specifically Berlin, has an advantage in terms of data protection and antidiscrimination laws that can serve as guidelines to set ethical and responsible standards for AI applications. Through close collaboration between governments, research institutions, companies, and civil society, guidelines and best practices can be developed to ensure that AI is transparent, fair, and non-discriminatory.

The future development of the AI ecosystem in Berlin must also consider the societal impact of AI. This includes job creation, supporting education and training in AI, and shaping an inclusive and equitable society.

How do you rate the influence of comics compared to other media when it comes to making people aware of sustainable practices and responsible technologies?

JS: As a comics essayist, I am of course a firm believer in comics as a medium for raising people's awareness of sustainability. After all, through the combination of images and text, comics create an emotional connection with readers - and through humor and a focus on opportunities, not just risks, they provide encouragement. Because of their accessibility, comics can reach people of different ages and backgrounds and thus have a lasting impact on thinking and acting - with regard to sustainability as well as other challenges.

Thank you very much for the interview.