WC Presidential Symposium facilitates conversations on artificial intelligence

By Heather Fabritze

News Co-Editor

The Washington College Presidential Symposium: “The Human and the Machine: Whose Intelligence?” initiated a full afternoon of discussion on artificial intelligence with students, staff, and faculty in Hotchkiss Recital Hall on Friday, Oct. 6.

Starting at 12:30 p.m., this year’s forum aimed to open conversation on the role of AI in higher education institutions and academic spaces on a wide scale by bringing members of the College into one room to share perspectives from their fields of expertise.

Some of these discussions were theoretical, based on predictions of how AI will affect future technologies and practices, while others focused on concrete uses of machine learning in the past year.

The WC Departments of English and World Languages & Cultures organized the symposium and delegated the organization of individual panel topics to moderators on the planning committee.

Associate Chair of the English Department Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor facilitated the first panel of the day at 1:15 p.m., “WC Students on AI.” Editors for campus publications and members of the IDEAWORKS Innovation Center made up its speakers.

According to symposium organizer and Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Dr. Martín Ponti, the students in this early afternoon session identified three major problems with AI creations: a lack of creativity, presence, and authenticity.

This concern for the continued ability to think critically in students’ works carried over into discussions shared throughout the day and was addressed by President of the College Dr. Michael Sosulski in his closing remarks.

“I’ve always maintained that the liberal arts is the absolutely most necessary and most appropriate way in which to train young minds today to cope with these kinds of challenges that I think we will only see accelerate,” Dr. Sosulski said.

These “challenges” refer to the ethical problems that occur as a result of unfamiliar technological advancements; they are also multidisciplinary, extending through all academic spaces, not just a few.

At 2:15 p.m., three faculty and staff members confronted this fact by presenting research on machine learning topics related to their fields. Associate Professor of Art History Dr. Benjamin Tilghman started off with his analysis, “Art without an Artist: Medieval Parallels with AI Images” and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Dr. Jordan Tirrell asked the question, “Could AI End the World?”.

Assistant Director of Educational Technology Raven Bishop rounded off the panel with her research exploring VR and AR in liberal arts education.

The final group forum, moderated by Professor of English and Co-Director of the Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning Dr. Sean Meehan, focused on the impact of AI in the college atmosphere and beyond.

Members of the panel shared individual experiences from their unique careers, including artificial intelligence interviews, developments in library cataloging, and the necessity of changing course foundations in response to AI.

Board of Visitors and Governors Trustee Ryder Daniels ‘90 gave the symposium’s keynote speech, “AI and the Future of Work: Perspectives in Business and Beyond.” Daniels displayed examples of anti-machine newspaper ads from the 1920s through 50s on the screens situated throughout the hall to demonstrate the ever-persisting human instinct to reject the unfamiliar.

His presentation related AI directly to the current day, addressing concerns of machines putting careers at risk, proposing theoretical outlines for an AI regulation committee, and embedding videos of the technology’s lesser known uses.

According to Daniels, up and coming AI programs have 25 times the capacity of what exists currently. He claims that they are more autonomous “than we think,” but that the potential benefits may outweigh the concerns.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity for the technologies to be used to make a big, big difference,” Daniels said in his keynote speech.

He argued that both the academic and business worlds must acknowledge the dangers and changes that AI poses. Through collaboration between community members of different fields and expertises, like in the discussions seen at the symposium, institutions like WC can successfully formulate plans to handle these problems.

“We have to be careful not to bury our heads in the sand and say it’s not coming or it’s not here,” Daniels said. “It’s much further along than we think it is. We have to harness those skills to be able to use them in our day to day jobs. We have to be able to find the people who can combine all of the necessary skills…to address that challenge.”

Much like Dr. Sosulski, Dr. Ponti believes that the education, work, and research being done at WC has the potential to directly confront the development of AI in academic spaces. Undergraduates have as large a role to play as any other member of the community.

“The future of AI is in good hands with our students,” Dr. Ponti said.

Photo by Heather Fabritze

Photo Caption: Keynote speaker Ryder Daniels ’90 addressed community members in Hotchkiss Recital Hall.

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