What is AI? – part 2: A brief history of AI

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Here is the second in a series of blog posts from Simon Blake about Appreciative Inquiry.

A brief history of AI.

Charting the course of the development of ideas can be tricky.  Too heavy on the history and it might be too specific to communicate the broader and deeper lessons-learned.  Too much of an emphasis on philosophical ideas and then the detail – and engaging nature – of the historical narrative might be lost.  This short blog post won’t, then, even attempt to be a ‘complete’ history.   And, in any case, decent histories already exist.

Appreciative Inquiry’s (narrative) history has been captured in a timeline reaching from it’s genesis in David Cooperrider’s doctoral research project at a medical clinic in the US in 1980, through to the more recent globalisation of a movement.  Jane Magruder Watkins and others set this out in a succinct manner in their introduction to the development of AI.  They do, though, occasionally miss inspirational events.  A case in point is the first meeting between Diane Whitney, Cooperider and Ken Gergen in the early 1990s, which led to the founding of the still influential Taos Institute. This is related in Gervase Bushe’s recent fulsome-yet-compact article.  Here, despite collating together a number of fascinating historical events,  Bushe sets out some of the broader principles and themes of AI within a historical context.

Questions which have been addressed through the past 35 years of AI practice and development, and which still remain open, relevant and challenging for us to consider as part of the LfE project include:  Is AI a philosophy (perhaps, a way of seeing and understanding the world) or a methodology (a means to get at that meaning) or both?; Is AI just action research with a positive question?; Is AI an approach which can uncover the truth about what works in an organisation?  What are the dangers of ignoring the equally real obstacles to the growth of human wellbeing and potential?

As a history, AI’s contains elements which can be inspirational.  The more recent moves towards a globalised perspective, with emerging as well as developed nation practitioners finding their own nuanced understandings and uses for AI, are exciting and stimulating.  Such developments serve to lend further support to the social constructionist underpinnings of AI.  That is, that our meanings and understandings are co-created through our attempts to understand.  Although this can still sound contentious, it is a central tenet of AI that there is not one ‘truth’ out there somewhere, waiting for us to discover.

Tracing the history of AI reveals that unresolved tensions remain; between generativity and positivity, and between appreciation and problem-solving.  This relatively brief history of AI has thus far demonstrated a failure to resolve them.  But, the beauty of the AI approach – regardless of which nuanced form one prefers – is that this is in itself generative.

The next blog post from me will collate some of the key moments from past and present uses of AI within the healthcare context.  Whilst not dispensing with this past – indeed, drawing upon the issues and themes which have already begun to be highlighted – there will also be a look into the future of and for AI, and for the LfE project in particular.

 

Simon Blake

October 2015

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