Professor Sarah Dillon

Professor of Literature and the Public Humanities at Faculty of English, University of Cambridge


Professor Sarah Dillon is an expert on narrative and the use of humanities evidence in policy, with particular expertise in relation to artificial intelligence and climate change. Her most recent book was co-authored with former Director of the UK Government Office for Science, Dr Claire Craig. Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning makes the case for the value of attention to stories, and the importance of understanding their functions and effects, in the context of high-level decision-making and policymaking. The book identifies four relevant functions of stories in this context. Stories can offer alternative points of view, create and cohere collective identities, function as narrative models, and play a crucial role in anticipation. Storylistening demonstrates how literary and other narratives function in this way in relation to four areas of public decision-making and reasoning where decisions are strongly influenced by contentious knowledge and powerful imaginings: climate change, the economy, nuclear power, and artificial intelligence.

Dillon and Craig argue that the task of taking stories seriously is urgent now, as recent political events have exposed the limits of technocratic evidence, and aim to create the conditions in which the task of listening to stories is possible, expected and becomes endemic. The book therefore provides insights to enable those engaged in public reasoning to consider the roles of stories more carefully, and to incorporate humanities evidence into decision-making; it also makes strong arguments for the ways in which the humanities disciplines as a whole might extend their imagining of themselves, and their structures and practices, in order to play a more active role in informing public reasoning. A short introduction to the concept of storylistening is available on the LSE Impact Blog; key arguments are published in Science’s policy forum; and work on storylistening, narrative and public reasoning about climate change is published in WIREs Climate Change.

From 2018-19, Sarah directed the AI Narrative and Justice Programme at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. She is co-author of the Royal Society report Portrayals and perceptions of AI and why they matter, a report on AI and Gender, and co-editor of AI Narratives: An Imaginative History of Intelligent Machines. She has published research using collaborative storytelling games to assess anticipatory assumptions about autonomous flight, and on the influence of literature on AI researchers. From 202-21 she co-led a global Andrew W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Histories of Artificial Intelligence: Genealogies of Power, which engaged in critical and comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments in AI technologies, to investigate their entanglement in systems of politics, power and control.

Sarah sits on the Management Board of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, and also broadcasts regularly on BBC radio. She read English at Clare College, Cambridge, graduating in 1998 and went on to gain an M.A. in Philosophy and Literature from the University of Warwick in 1999 and a D.Phil. in English from the University of Sussex in 2004. She taught at the University of St Andrews for eight years, from 2006-2014, first as a Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature. She returned to Cambridge in 2014 and is now Professor of Literature and the Public Humanities in the Faculty of English.