Colby College is making room in the liberal arts canon for artificial intelligence.
Thanks to a $ 30 million gift from an alumnus, the small, selective college in Maine is founding the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, designed to integrate machine learning, natural language processing, and big data into teaching and research across the college.
“We want to make sure we are preparing students well for their futures: lives and careers of purpose,” says Margaret McFadden, Provost and Faculty Dean at Colby. “Well-trained people need to understand AI, what these tools are and how to use them.”
Artificial intelligence has homes at other U.S. colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Georgia, the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, and Stanford University. However, Colby’s officials say the new AI institute is a first for a small liberal arts college.
“What we want to do is bring all of the expertise from all of our disciplines to the AI School of Liberal Arts,” says McFadden.
Throughout higher education, disciplines such as philosophy and the arts lay claim to artificial intelligence and the technology that makes it possible. A new side program at the New School in New York City, “Code as Liberal Art”, for example, deals with computer science as a tool for creativity, criticism and civic engagement.
Proponents of this approach say it’s important to mitigate the potential power of AI by rooting it in morality, history, and sociology. Embedding artificial intelligence study in the liberal arts will hopefully result in it being used in “ethical ways that don’t reproduce existing social ills,” says McFadden.
For example, many people have wondered if current crises over the use of social media in a democracy could have been avoided if more technology leaders had a better foundation in areas like ethics and history. In a 2018 column in the New York Times, longtime tech journalist Kara Swisher suggested that one reason Facebook has been troubled in recent years may be that founder Mark Zuckerberg was “a computer major who left college prematurely left and did not take enough humanities classes that could have drawn his attention to the uglier aspects of human nature. “
Colby is conducting a national search for the founding director of the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The college also plans to recruit six faculty members from different disciplines who will work in their own departments and will also contribute to the institute.
“AI changes a lot of research and discovery processes,” says McFadden. “We have to make sure the faculty is ready to be up to date.”