April 18, 2019

A Letter from the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Joe Ward, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Science, sits smiling before a backdrop of books.

Here’s an observation I’m confident will generate widespread agreement: Technological change is increasingly reshaping our lives. Digitization is transforming how we work, how we engage with current events, how we acquire and consume the necessities of life, and how we interact with family and friends. All of these developments mean that it is easier for others – in both the commercial and the governmental realms – to track, to predict, and to try to shape our behavior.

For example, major companies (such as one whose name starts with “A” and sounds like a river in South America . . .) are exploring ways to ship goods to some customers before they order them simply because they have a well-established purchasing pattern. There is a fine line between sending us what we need and sending us what we want; there is another fine line between sending us what we want and sending us what the company wants us to want. I may choose to order cookies even though I know that they might not be good for my health, but how will I react if they show up, unannounced, on my doorstep in an easy-to-return package? Hopefully, I will make the right choice for me regardless of the company’s efforts.

Another realm of machine-based anticipatory activity will involve autonomous vehicles. If we are driving along a highway and a deer jumps in front of our car, we will make a variety of quick decisions that will have grave consequences for ourselves and for those around us (passengers in our vehicle, passengers in other vehicles nearby, and, of course, the deer). For better or worse, we will make these decisions based on a combination of our experience, judgment, personal code of ethics, and intuition. How is the autonomous vehicle going to decide what to do? Who is going to design the algorithms that will determine how the vehicle will determine the best course of action? At what point does the machine assert what it “thinks” is best over what its designer may think is best?

I know that the scenarios I am describing here sound like science fiction, but every day there are thousands of highly skilled people around the world going to work making these concepts real. Whether we like it or not, the choices we make when we surf the internet, use our smart phones, and watch television are being monitored, recorded, and analyzed in ways that will inform the programs that will guide the machines that will operate in realms we used to think were the exclusive province of humans. This is among the issues being researched by the college’s new and timely Center for Anticipatory Intelligence; read more in our article about the CAI.

It is therefore crucial that we who value the humanities and social sciences play an integral role in managing how disruptive technological change will shape our world. Our college faculty members provide students with a wide variety of contexts in which to consider the many consequences of artificial intelligence for the human condition. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the fate of humanity will rest largely in the hands of our students (no pressure, kids!).

— Joe Ward,
Dean at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences


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