HONORS 398A

“Are A.I. and Robots Becoming Existential Threats to Humans?” This was the title of HONORS 398A. I liked that the small class size – only 15 students – allowed for each student’s voice to be easily heard; it helped me get to know my classmates better by the end of the quarter (I can list everyone’s names from memory, unlike in my other classes). The class structure was unusual in that it met for three hours biweekly (the professor ordered pizza for everyone to break up the long class time), with substantial assignments, both group and individual, filling the space between class meetings.

We explored two primary themes during the quarter; one was the potential economic impact of artificial intelligence. Much has been written about the wide range of economically productive tasks now being delegated to A.I. systems, the sluggish job growth that has resulted, and the high likelihood that there will be significant economic stress before A.I. is fully integrated into our economy. One interesting facet of the trend we looked at this quarter, an angle I hadn’t examined previously, was the projected impact of A.I. on the global market, specifically in third-world countries in Africa; that analysis broadened my views on the economic effects of A.I.

The other primary theme we explored was how A.I. relates to the human experience. My favorite part of this discussion was the interplay with human psychology: how we are inclined to perceive an A.I. world. How will we value our role in society when (not if) A.I. becomes the main driver of economic growth? As expressed in countless movies, we are afraid of the possible lack of control over our lives; I anticipate that at least in the foreseeable future, we will be uncomfortable with the change. Will robots mimic human emotional connection so effectively that we interact with them just as we do with humans? We do tend to anthropomorphize, and our deep-seated need to be listened to and understood indicates that robotic companionship is a possibility, but I find it far from certain that human-to-human connection will be replaced anytime soon. Is there something we do as humans that A.I. cannot ultimately replicate? What makes us human? Though I don’t have complete answers to these, I do suspect that in the foreseeable future, there will still be something fundamentally different about how humans and A.I. systems function.

I enjoyed the variety of perspectives that were discussed in the class. We heard guest speakers with differing viewpoints – from Julie Villegas, an artist and staunch humanist, to Pedro Domingos, a machine learning researcher and dedicated futurist. And ultimately my classmates and I each developed our own unique perspectives on the issue (mine is voiced in the final reflection essay assignment included below); we did not all agree about the topic, and that was celebrated, since such a complex issue has no easy answers. I left the class with a better understanding of current socioeconomic trends regarding A.I., different opinions on the subject and proposed directions for solutions, and my own beliefs about it. I now have a better vocabulary with which to talk about the issues and an even stronger motivation to stay in touch with technological progress and what it means for us as human beings.

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