Bowdoin Selected for National Initiative on AI Ethics

Lr: Eric Chown, Allison Cooper, Michael Franz, Fernando Nascimento

“This is exactly the sort of area we focus on at the DCS program, so I’m sure that’s one of the reasons we were chosen for this award,” said Chown. One example of this kind of work that’s already underway is the Computing Ethics Narrativesanother national initiative involving Bowdoin faculty aimed at integrating ethics into undergraduate computer science curricula at American colleges and universities.

Other faculty involved in the NHC project are cinema studies scholar Allison Cooperwho is also an assistant professor of Romance languages ​​and literatures, and Professor of Government Michael Franz† While his colleagues will work on the broader ethical issues regarding AI, Chown’s focus will be more on teaching the nuts and bolts behind the subject.

“My work in machine learning and artificial intelligence will basically serve to study what’s going on in AI and how it works. Then we’ll look at various applications and, using the work of Fernando and Alison, students will be asked to consider questions like ‘What are the developers’ goals when they’re doing this?’ ‘How is this impacting users?’” Franz, meanwhile, will focus on issues surrounding government regulation in the AI ​​sphere and what the political implications might be.

“The selection of Bowdoin as one of the fifteen institutions sponsored by the initiative indicates the relevance of liberal arts to the discussion,” said Nascimento, who heads to NHC headquarters in North Carolina on June 20, representing the College at a five-day conference to discuss next steps. “It’s important that we define our objectives and our limitations as we develop this transformative technology so that it effectively promotes the common good.”

“Students will be asked to consider questions like ‘What are the developers’ goals…?” ‘How is this impacting users?’”

“I was thrilled to learn that Bowdoin was one of the institutions selected by the National Humanities Center, and also to have the opportunity to work with colleagues in DCS and government on the project,” said Cooper, who uses computational methods to analyze film language in her research and contributed moving image narratives from film and television to the Computing Ethics Narratives project.

“We all share the belief that contemporary films and media can raise especially thought-provoking questions about AI for our students,” she added, citing movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey Ex Machinaand The Matrix. Cooper anticipates the new collaborative course will involve integrating this type of study with classes about actual technologies. “This should offer our students a truly unique opportunity to move back and forth between speculative and applied approaches to understanding AI.” †Learn more about Kinolab–an online searchable database of media clips launched by Cooper for cinema students and scholars

Participants in the new project will, over the next twelve months, design a semester-long course to be taught during the following academic year. They will then reconvene in the summer of 2024 to share their experiences and discuss the future of the project. Cooper and Franz anticipate that their experience coteaching with their DCS colleagues will lead to the future development of stand-alone courses focusing on AI in their respective fields of cinema studies and government.

“It’s really exciting for Bowdoin to be involved with such a diverse cross section of schools in this project,” said Director of Academic Advancement and Strategic Priorities Allison Crosscup, whose responsibilities include the development of grant-seeking opportunities at the College. Crosscup identified three factors above all that make Bowdoin an ideal partner in the project. “At the faculty level we’ve got the Computing Ethics Narratives project; at the academic level we’ve got DCS, which in 2019 became a full-fledged academic program; and at the institutional level we have the ‘K report’,* which also promotes ethical decision-making, so we’re hitting all three levels. “Overall,” she concluded, “this project presents a great opportunity to leverage work that’s already being done here and to build on it.”

According to the project’s timeline, students will be able to enroll in the new collaborative course on ethics in AI during the 2023–2024 academic year. The class will be taught over one semester by the four faculty members highlighted above.

*Refers to the KSCD report, an initiative launched by President Clayton Rose in 2018 to identify the knowledge, skills, and creative dispositions every Bowdoin student should possess in a decade’s time.

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