OPINION: Universities cannot ignore the advent of AI technology

This fall, a robot passed a class on the philosophy of love at Notre Dame de Namur University in Fremont, Calif. Known as Bina48, the humanoid artificial intelligence system enrolled in the section after expressing its own desire to attend college, an idea that was excitedly supported by both students and the course instructor. Bina48 — considered as the world’s most sentient robot — is the first socially adept AI to independently complete a university-level class.

Art by Deena Baum | Daily Trojan

This is no small feat. Developers have made leaps and bounds in terms of recent AI innovations — household products like Amazon’s Alexa are just previews of what’s to come in the tech industry. And, while many are unsettled by the dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence, Bina48’s participation in class debates is one of the first real demonstrations of the fact that AI can help people beyond the realm of being a personal assistant; it can engage with people and, from a true outsider’s perspective, challenge their preconceived beliefs.

In this regard, it would be foolish to overlook the potential benefits that such intelligence systems can bring to classrooms as well as people’s everyday lives. As centers for cultivating an innovative spirit, universities in particular should strongly consider incorporating AI into course curriculum — whether through theoretical approaches or direct participation.

Artificial intelligence provides students with a unique opportunity to analyze how the human mind formulates thoughts and ideas. While it may seem like a stretch to encourage the normalization of robot classmates, Bina48’s success at Notre Dame is indicative of how such technology can fit into higher education. For instance, in philosophical debates and discussions with Bina48, students were forced to explain one of

the most complicated feelings a human can experience: love. Weighty discussions like these not only forced students to venture outside their own perspectives to define the “human” condition, but also reinforced integral concepts and frames of thought that the course was trying to emphasize.

Of course, artificial intelligence does not have to come in the form of a humanoid college student to contribute to the class environment. Among many potential features, AI can help grade homework and tests, personalize educational software to meet students’ needs and devise plans for future course instruction.

If anything, the concept of artificial intelligence provides universities with a compelling source of material for class curricula.

As seen with Bina48, the myriad of potential debates on topics such as human emotion and existentialism are thought-provoking components of any philosophy, sociology or ethics course. Within the realm of STEM, the presence of artificial intelligence could be used in lessons regarding machinery learning, computer logic and algorithms.

In this regard, USC has already taken commendable steps to keep up with the times. For example, in the Viterbi School of Engineering’s computer science department, the course entitled “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” is teaching students the construction and functionality of machines like Bina48. In the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, students can take a course entitled “Hands-on Disruption: Experimenting with Emerging Technology,” which explores how journalists can work with new intelligence systems to create timely and relevant stories.

One such technological development being explored is “QuakeBot,” a tool of the Los Angeles Times that automatically sends reports of local earthquakes according to a predetermined formula. But however progressive this perspective may seem, instances such as Notre Dame’s philosophy course with Bina48 show that USC can, and should, incorporate artificial intelligence into more overlooked disciplines, such as the social sciences.

For these applications to be successful, however, people must overcome their fear of technology. While the events in the science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror” are indeed possibilities, they are not necessarily realities. And although jokes on social media about the dangers of AI systems like Sophia the Robot may be amusing on the surface, they are indicative of a general reluctance to accept change. But once again, educators and students alike would be cheating themselves if they shied away from such a groundbreaking resource.

As artificial intelligence continues to permeate discourse in science and politics, so will perceptions of its potential place in society. Will instructors be replaced by AI? On that note, will all jobs be replaced by machines? Only time will tell. For now, universities need to take full advantage of the potential benefits that such technology can bring to both intellectual and pre-professional development. After all, students are taught to be leaders of the future — they can’t be afraid of it.

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