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Kata PÜSÖK: AI Upholding Cultural Rigths – Rehabilitation of Cultural Heritage and More (PART I.)

Last week, I came across an intriguing article that made me contemplate the intersection of AI and human rights, which is the focus of my research. The article discussed the remarkable infiltration of AI into various aspects of our lives and posed an interesting question: Can AI play a significant role in creating or reconstructing paintings and contribute to the world of art? The article sheds light on how organizations like Microsoft are utilizing AI to safeguard cultural heritage. Through a project focused on artwork-based image generation, Microsoft employed deep neural networks and Azure services to create a service that digitally preserves and enhances pictures, artifacts, sculptures, and cultural remnants.

The ability to piece together components from museums worldwide using AI opens up exciting possibilities, particularly in gaining insights from ancient scripts. One of the most intriguing aspects of this initiative is the potential to gain insights from ancient scripts.

By digitally preserving and enhancing these artifacts, Microsoft’s project ensures their longevity and accessibility to future generations. This not only safeguards cultural heritage but also enables a wider audience to engage with these valuable works of art. Whether it’s studying the brushstrokes of a masterpiece or deciphering the symbolism in an ancient sculpture, AI plays a crucial role in unlocking the secrets of our shared human history. The implications of Microsoft’s endeavor extend far beyond the preservation of physical objects. The integration of AI technologies in the realm of cultural heritage allows for the creation of immersive experiences and interactive platforms. Virtual exhibitions, augmented reality tours, and digital reconstructions provide opportunities for individuals to engage with cultural heritage in innovative and captivating ways. Through AI, the past comes alive, fostering a deeper appreciation and understanding of our collective heritage. Microsoft’s dedication to leveraging AI for cultural heritage preservation sets a commendable precedent for other organizations and institutions. It serves as a reminder of the transformative potential of technology when applied in a thoughtful and responsible manner. By embracing the power of AI, we not only safeguard our cultural legacy but also ensure its relevance and significance in a rapidly evolving world.

As I reflected on the profound impact that AI can have on preserving and enhancing cultural heritage, it reinforced my belief in the importance of exploring the relationship between AI and human rights. AI has the potential to empower communities, promote inclusivity, and preserve the rich tapestry of human experiences. However, it is essential to navigate this intersection with a deep understanding of ethical considerations, ensuring that AI technologies are developed and deployed in a manner that respects human rights, cultural diversity, and societal values. 

Last week, I came across an article that truly captivated me and had so many intriguing points. It was about Cesare Fialà, the Co-Founder and CEO of Culture Hint, and how his optimization platform, powered by AI tools, collaborated with the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage in Malta and Culture Venture to drive an astonishing 11% growth in visitor numbers at Spazju Kreattiv. 

The article highlighted the significance of collecting visitor data for cultural institutions, and how AI and machine learning are revolutionizing the way people flow is monitored and forecasted. Cesare explained how their AI engine utilizes data from various sources, such as weather conditions and flight patterns, to forecast people flow accurately. This valuable data is then used to generate resource recommendations, including human, material, and financial resources, through their optimization engine. Since its establishment in 2019, Culture Hint has collaborated with numerous cultural organizations and local councils worldwide, including Singapore, Italy, and the UK, to provide meaningful data insights. One of their recent projects involved partnering with Culture Venture and Malta’s Superintendence of Cultural Heritage to enhance the cultural tourism experience at Spazju Kreattiv, located within the historic St James’ Cavalier fortress in Valetta. Reading about Cesare Fialà’s achievements with Culture Hint left me inspired and excited about the potential of AI in the cultural sector. It reminded me of the profound impact technology can have in enhancing visitor experiences and optimizing operations. The article reaffirmed my passion for exploring the intersection of AI and human rights, as the responsible and ethical application of AI can lead to positive transformations in various domains, including culture and heritage.

While I was doing some research on the general topic of AI and human rights, I came across some files I had saved on my computer one year ago. In 2022, in the framework of the Telders International Law Moot Court Competition, I spent a lot of time examining the destroyed cultural heritage in Timbuktu. This was necessary in order to understand a specific case that was adjudicated before the ICC, namely the Al Mahdi case. Just in a few sentences, Al Mahdi, a member of an armed group in Mali, was charged with war crimes for his involvement in the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites in Timbuktu. The case highlighted the significance of preserving cultural heritage and utilized digital reconstructions created with AI technology as evidence to demonstrate the extent of the damage and the cultural loss caused by the destruction. It served as a landmark trial in recognizing the importance of protecting cultural heritage and holding individuals accountable for its destruction. 

Having found these documents on my computer, I began to think how the monuments might look today. After conducting some research, I discovered that significant efforts have been made to restore and rebuild the damaged cultural heritage sites. Restoration projects, both local and international, have worked tirelessly to reconstruct the structures and recover what could be salvaged from the destruction. The Sidi Yahya Mosque, which suffered severe damage during the conflict, has undergone extensive reconstruction to restore its architectural integrity. Skilled artisans and experts have meticulously repaired and rebuilt the mosque using traditional building techniques and materials, aiming to preserve its historical significance. Regarding the collection of ancient manuscripts, many were fortunately hidden or smuggled out of harm’s way during the conflict. Efforts have been made to recover and preserve these invaluable manuscripts. Institutions and organizations dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage have worked in collaboration with local communities to digitize, conserve, and protect these manuscripts for future generations. This has allowed scholars and researchers worldwide to access and study these precious historical documents.

While the restoration efforts have been successful in bringing back the physical structures and preserving the manuscripts, it is important to acknowledge that some elements of the cultural heritage may have been irretrievably lost. The destruction caused by Mr. Al Mahdi and the armed group has left a lasting impact on Timbuktu’s cultural landscape, with scars that may never fully fade.

While the right to culture both stands out and also belongs to the circle of human rights, I began to think whether AI could be a revolutionary tool that should be introduced into the reconstruction of such destroyed monuments. Truly, the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in the rehabilitation and rebuilding of destroyed cultural heritage, as demonstrated in the case of Timbuktu’s Al Mahdi trial, is a topic that fills me with hope and excitement. The use of AI technologies in preserving and restoring cultural treasures that have been damaged or lost due to conflict or other destructive forces offers a glimmer of possibility for the revitalization of our shared human history. In the aftermath of the Al Mahdi conflict, efforts were made to document and preserve what remained of the cultural heritage in Timbuktu. This is where AI technology played a crucial role. The use of high-resolution imaging, 3D scanning, and other AI-powered techniques enabled experts to capture and digitally recreate the damaged sites and manuscripts. Through advanced image analysis algorithms, researchers were able to restore and piece together fragmented texts and artifacts, revealing invaluable insights into the history and culture of the region.

The Al Mahdi trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) further showcased the potential of AI in cultural heritage restoration. During the trial, digital reconstructions and visualizations created using AI technologies were used as evidence to demonstrate the significance and irreparable loss caused by the destruction. These digital representations not only contributed to the legal proceedings but also acted as a reminder of the cultural importance of preserving our shared heritage.

Kata Püsök is currently in her fourth year at the law school of Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest. She is also a student of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, and an intern at the European Parliament. Her main fields of interest are international criminal law and criminal psychology. 

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