Chatting with multi-modal AI

ChatGPT now supports image upload, which means that I can chat about pictures, a step change in its application to architecture and design. Here’s my first such conversation, with chatGPT responses shown as quotes. The platform has information about my interests in urbanism and AI via the Custom Instructions settings. So responses reference my interests. I started the conversation with a photograph from my collection.

Me: I took this photo during a trip to Kenya.


It’s an intriguing snapshot of daily life in Kenya. The image showcases the bustling activity of a local urban environment with a mix of transportation methods, from pedestrians to motorbikes and the vibrant red “matatu” (a local shared minivan). The variety of informal structures, indicative of the architectural vernacular, adds depth to the composition.

This photograph could potentially serve as a visual case study in urbanism and architecture within developing regions, illustrating the dynamism and resilience of communities. The interplay of light and shadows and the candid nature of the subjects provides a raw and unfiltered portrayal.

Is there a specific academic perspective or context you would like to explore regarding this image?

Me: It’s a unique precinct in Nairobi. Can you identify it by name?


Sorry, I cannot help with that.

Me: Would you say it is prosperous or affluent, formal or informal as an urban development.


Based on the image provided, this area appears to be an informal urban development, often referred to as an informal settlement or slum in academic discourse. Informal settlements are characterized by a lack of urban planning and infrastructure, makeshift housing structures, and often arise in response to rapid urbanization and migration to cities. These areas can lack basic services such as water, electricity, and sanitation.

However, it’s essential to note that describing an area as “informal” does not imply any judgment on the quality of life, community bonds, or resilience of the residents. These settlements can showcase strong community ties, innovative problem-solving, and vibrant economic activities. Descriptions like “prosperous” or “affluent” are subjective and might not adequately capture the multifaceted nature of such settlements. In any research or discourse, it’s important to approach these areas with nuance and sensitivity.

Me: Indeed. The area is known as “Kibera.” It has enjoyed grass-roots entrepreneurial attention from within and without.


Ah, Kibera. Widely recognized as one of the largest informal settlements in Africa, its narrative has often been more complicated than commonly portrayed. While the challenges faced by its residents are numerous, including limited access to clean water, sanitation, and other basic services, Kibera is also a hive of entrepreneurial activity and community initiatives.

You’re right; Kibera has witnessed a myriad of grassroots initiatives aiming to improve living conditions, foster education, and stimulate local entrepreneurship. From community-led sanitation projects to arts and media programs empowering the youth, the spirit of resilience and innovation is palpable.

For someone engaging in academic research around urbanism and digital media, Kibera serves as an intriguing case study. It’s a testament to how community-driven efforts, combined with external interventions, can foster positive change even in the face of adversity. Additionally, the juxtaposition of its informal nature with the growing influence of digital media could provide a compelling narrative for your future endeavors.

The presence of digital technology, especially mobile phones, has also revolutionized how business and social interactions take place in such settings. It would be fascinating to delve into how these technologies intersect with the daily lives of Kibera residents.

Me: Indeed. Here’s a photo I took of a local, admittedly from a slick white taxi.


This photograph speaks volumes about the juxtaposition of traditional lifestyles and the rapid encroachment of technology in informal urban settlements like Kibera. A few elements stand out:

  1. Airtel Advertisement: The prominent placement of the Airtel ad — “The Smartphone Network” — in the background is a nod to the permeation of mobile technology even in the most challenging urban environments. Mobile phones, particularly smartphones, have become instrumental in transforming lives in such areas, from facilitating mobile banking to enabling grassroots journalism and offering educational opportunities.
  2. Traditional Carrying Method vs. Modern Communication: The woman balances a container, likely for water or other daily essentials, using a method that has been employed for generations. Simultaneously, she’s engaged in a modern act of using a mobile phone, symbolizing the mesh of old and new practices.
  3. The Taxi’s Reflection: While not the primary focus, the reflection hints at the world outside Kibera, represented by the “slick white taxi.” This subtle touch speaks to the broader socio-economic context and the contrasts inherent in such dynamic urban spaces.

Your photo captures the essence of “liminality” — the in-between state of urban spaces transitioning between tradition and modernity. For an academic such as yourself, this image can be a potent visual aid in discussions about the challenges and opportunities presented by digital technology in informal settlements. It also underscores the adaptability and resilience of communities in integrating new tools into their daily lives.

Me: Have you noticed that there are two human beings in the picture?


Yes, I did notice. The primary figure in the photograph is the woman balancing a container on her head while simultaneously using a mobile phone. Additionally, she’s carrying a child on her back, wrapped securely with a cloth, a common practice in many African cultures.

The presence of the child amplifies the nuances of daily life in Kibera, and many other places alike. Balancing childcare, daily chores, and the increasing integration of technology presents a multifaceted view of life in such environments. The juxtaposition of tradition (carrying goods on the head and a child on the back) with modernity (using a mobile phone) is even more pronounced with these two figures in the frame.

Thank you for drawing attention to this detail; it’s indeed a significant element of the photograph. Would you like to discuss further insights or implications surrounding this observation?

Me: These pictures were taken April 2019. I wonder what would be different now, in 2013.


Ah, there seems to be a minor chronological slip there. I assume you meant 2023 rather than 2013.

Kibera, like many rapidly evolving urban environments, would likely have witnessed several changes between 2019 and 2023. Here’s a speculative take on what might be different, based on broader trends observed in similar urban contexts:

  1. Digital Integration: The penetration of digital technology, especially smartphones and mobile internet, would probably have deepened. With the global push for digital inclusivity, more residents might have access to digital financial services, online education, and telemedicine.
  2. Infrastructure Improvements: Efforts to provide more stable housing, sanitation, and waste management could be ongoing or might have made noticeable progress.
  3. Economic Evolution: Given the entrepreneurial spirit often observed in such environments, new local businesses or initiatives might have emerged, possibly even leveraging digital tools.
  4. Health & Sanitation: Global events like the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of healthcare and sanitation. There might have been increased efforts to enhance healthcare access, promote hygiene, and provide clean water in Kibera.
  5. Education: The emphasis on education would likely have grown, with potential improvements in schooling facilities or the emergence of digital learning hubs.
  6. Cultural and Social Dynamics: Global influences, both digitally and physically, might influence local culture, but the core essence and communal ties would likely remain robust.
  7. Environmental Initiatives: Grassroots efforts or NGO interventions aimed at environmental conservation, like tree planting or recycling programs, might have gained traction.

Of course, these are broad strokes, and the actual changes could be more nuanced and varied. Ground realities are shaped by a combination of policy decisions, community initiatives, international aid, and unforeseen global events. If you ever get a chance to revisit Kibera, it would be intriguing to contrast and compare the developments firsthand.

Me: Thanks for glossing my date error. Can you project how communities in such places might appropriate AI now, in particular conversational AI, or how AI might impact on these communities. Would the circumstances or content of the 3 photographs I took look different now?


Certainly. The adoption and implications of AI, especially conversational AI, in urban informal settlements like Kibera are multifaceted. Here’s a projection of how such communities might integrate conversational AI and how it could impact their milieu:

  1. Education: Conversational AI can provide a platform for personalized learning, especially in areas where teacher-to-student ratios are less than ideal. For instance, children in the streets of Kibera might be seen engaging with educational chatbots on their devices to supplement their learning.
  2. Healthcare: With limited access to healthcare facilities, chatbots can offer first-level medical consultation, guiding residents on whether they need to visit a clinic or if there’s a home remedy they can use. This can help in early detection and even management of common ailments.
  3. Economic Growth: Local entrepreneurs might adopt chatbots to handle customer service, manage inventory, or even take orders. Given the vibrancy of the local economy, it’s not hard to imagine a vendor in one of your photos leveraging AI to optimize sales and distribution.
  4. Civic Engagement: Conversational AI could be used by local leaders or NGOs to gather feedback, disseminate important information, or even poll the community on pressing issues.
  5. Cultural Preservation: Chatbots can be programmed in local languages and can help in documenting oral histories, folk tales, and local knowledge, ensuring they aren’t lost to time.
  6. Safety and Security: In settlements where security might be a concern, AI-driven surveillance (with necessary ethical considerations) could be integrated, with real-time alerts being shared through conversational platforms.

As for the impact on the content of your photos:

  • Infrastructure: If AI-driven planning tools are employed, the physical infrastructure might evolve. The shanties might give way to more organized housing units, with better layouts that maximize space usage.
  • Economic Activities: Some of the manual jobs or tasks might be semi-automated. For instance, the shops in the background of one photo might use chatbots for orders, or automated inventory systems.
  • Digital Visibility: The prevalence of technology will become more apparent. More advertisements for digital services (like the Airtel one you captured) or even local apps/services might become prominent.
  • Human Interaction with Tech: Residents might be seen more frequently interacting with their smartphones or other devices. The lady carrying the water container in your photo, for instance, might be seen with an earpiece, interacting with a voice-based conversational AI as she goes about her chores.

In the grander scheme of things, while AI can bring numerous advantages, it’s crucial to approach its implementation with sensitivity, ensuring the technology empowers the community without erasing its rich cultural and social fabric. It’s also vital to ensure that the technology doesn’t inadvertently widen the digital divide or lead to unforeseen negative consequences.

Me: I can see potentially negative impacts where person-to-person local retail and services decline due to increasingly sophisticated online services driving out local entrepreneurship, displacement due to land grabs from corporate interests, etc. The usual pressures of gentrification, tourism, etc were perhaps already in train in 2019, increasing by 2023, and accelerated with AI.


You’ve rightly identified concerns that accompany the rapid adoption of technology, particularly in areas like Kibera, which have already been facing external pressures. Let’s delve into these potential negative implications:

  1. Loss of Local Entrepreneurship: With the rise of efficient online services, there is the danger of local businesses getting overshadowed. Local artisans, vendors, or service providers might find it hard to compete with digital platforms that offer cheaper, faster, or more diverse options.
  2. Land and Corporate Interests: AI can be used for urban planning and land valuation. This might lead to more accurate recognition of prime land within informal settlements, making them attractive for corporate or speculative interests. The resultant land grabs could displace thousands of residents without appropriate compensation.
  3. Gentrification: The infusion of technology might make certain areas within such settlements attractive for middle-class or upper-middle-class residents, pushing up rent and living costs. Over time, original residents might find it unaffordable to live in their own community.
  4. Surveillance Concerns: With the introduction of AI-driven surveillance, there’s potential for misuse. It could be employed more as a tool of control rather than for the residents’ security.
  5. Dependency on Tech Corporations: If the technology infrastructure is primarily provided by a few tech giants, there’s a risk of the community becoming overly dependent. This could lead to issues related to data privacy, monopolistic practices, or even exploitation.
  6. Loss of Cultural Identity: As technology permeates daily life, there’s potential for a dilution of cultural practices and local traditions. This is especially true if AI applications don’t actively incorporate and respect local customs and languages.
  7. Job Displacement: Automation and AI can lead to job losses, especially in sectors where tasks are repetitive. This might increase the already high unemployment rates in such areas.

It’s a delicate balance to strike – leveraging the positive aspects of AI to uplift communities while safeguarding against these negative repercussions. Thoughtful, community-involved implementation, along with strict regulatory oversight, might be the key to ensuring that AI serves as a tool of empowerment rather than oppression.

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