Course Description

There is a real world with real structure. The program of mind has been trained on the vast interaction with this world and so contains code that reflects the structure of the world and knows how to exploit it.” – Eric B. Baum (2004)


Our technology, our machines, is part of our humanity. We created them to extend ourselves, and that is what is unique about human beings.” – Ray Kurzweil


My codename is Project 2501, and I am a life form that was born in a sea of information.” – The Puppet Master, from Ghost in the Shell (1995)


Jesus said, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, then it is a wonder. But if the spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.” – Gospel of Thomas saying 29

These quotes reflect a progression from a computational orientation to a humanistic orientation, which we aspire to capture, organize, and convey in our course, “The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.”

Over the past decade, artificial intelligence (AI) technology has progressed in leaps and bounds, becoming a key fabric of our everyday lives. Amazon suggests and caters to our preferences; GPS services help us circumvent traffic jams; we rely on Google to access information; and cars have begun to drive themselves. Synthetic entities, whether it be in humanoid shape or as background programs that govern our communication and interaction, has reached the level of emulating not only our exterior form but also interior workings such as thought, emotion, and even art. Google Magenta is developing AI-produced artworks, while an AI-written short story won a literary prize in Japan. Alphago beat a world-class human player in the ancient game of Go, exerting logical precision as well as spontaneous judgment calls. Humanity’s long-standing dream of mastering the final frontier of creation is no longer a far-fetched fantasy or esoteric musing, but an imminent, palpable reality.

Even as tech-enthusiasts such as futurist Ray Kurzweil welcomes the AI-turn, however, envisioning a rosy future where AIs would even power an existential upgrade for the human species, others like British philosopher Nick Bostrom warns us against the emergence of malevolent superintelligence. Industry leaders and scholars including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are calling for shared ethical standards to prevent AI-driven weapons-race, gesturing to formidable advancements in military drones and remote warfare. These are wide-reaching claims, but in fact we need not venture so far from the mundane to recognize the very real-world implications of potential threats or problems posed by the increasingly pervasive presence of AI. Will AI programs take over our jobs? How are we to allocate responsibility in cases of accidents caused by autonomous vehicles? Should such machines be programmed to prioritize the safety of the driver/owner over pedestrians – whose life has more value? How may we resolve the problem of biased learning in AI behavior, examples of which include exhibitions of racial or gender-prejudiced tendencies? In short, if AI is modeled, to some extent, after own image, how may we shape them to adopt the values we cherish, while also improving upon human myopia, to ensure a sustainable future?

This course sets out to interrogate this important question, which pushes us to not only consider the immediate moral and legal repercussions of AI presence but also reflect on the fundamental principles of ethical life. The uncanny alterity of AI inspires both marvel and fear, its significance is ultimately determined by human agency. Without a proper acknowledgement of how the “make” and “meaning” of AI go hand in hand, we run the risk of reducing the latter’s conceptual complexity to the binarism (1s and 0s) of computational structure, or lauding the former’s procedural rigor as the sublimation of human reason without factoring in the arbitrary vicissitudes of human desire and follies that shape and drive AI platforms. A trans-institutional and interdisciplinary approach, in this regard, is an absolute necessity, in order for us to feel out and appreciate the rich space between the 1s and 0s that constitute the intelligently networked digital culture of our time.

Responding to this crucial need, and with the aim of equipping the students with both the scientific/technological knowledge and critical capacity to engage with this rapidly evolving sector, this course explores the ethical implications of artificial intelligence technology to harnesses the meaning of both the “artificial” and “intelligence” across the scientific, technical, and humanistic spectrum, tapping into disciplines including computer engineering/science, philosophy, theology, history, literature, and industrial applications. Students will cultivate versatile thinking by looking at varied strains of computational architecture to comprehend the logical basis of artificially intelligent decision making, while situating their learnings within the framework of ethical and civic responsibility through a wide range of activities.

Our course will address near-term, arguably pragmatic implications of AI in areas such as warfare, automation, law, transportation, and AI governance generally (e.g., a focus of Cornell’s course, EdX’s course; MIT’s course), as well as longer-term and higher moral questions, to include the implications of AIs on human perceptions of personhood, which is material also included in courses such as Edinburgh’s. Unlike other courses, at Vanderbilt or otherwise, we aspire to transmit both non-trivial computational intuitions about the operations of AI to those without computing experience, as well as exercising and growing competencies in literature, history, moral philosophy, and business.

Throughout the semester, the course will divide the week between (1) learning the structure and workings of AI through programming workshops; lectures; or research articles in the field of computer science and engineering, and (2) participating in plenary or small group discussions and writing assignments based on literary, critical, philosophical, new media, and/or business case-study readings. Employing design thinking and immersive learning techniques to maximize the synergetic combination of the natural/applied/social sciences and humanities, the course adopts a project-based trajectory to direct this alternate structure, asking the students to build up toward a final project that actively embodies their learnings. While the boundary between the semi-technical component and the reflective, small group component of the course will be kept somewhat fuzzy, the two components will be roughly divided between a two-section per week class schedule.

Each week’s section (1), which will be dubbed “the Make of AIs,” is designed to provide the students with the techno-scientific acumen required for a more in-depth understanding of the “artificial” aspect of AIs as a human creation. The treatment of AI will not rely on knowledge of programming, mathematics, psychology, biology, or other related fields. Rather, the instructors will convey important AI methods (e.g.,  the search for solutions given prior knowledge), and broader concepts (e.g., the ubiquitous tradeoff between exploiting what you, or an AI, already knows and exploration into new territory), through high-level algorithm descriptions, examples, having students reflect on their own cognitive processes, and rich visualizations of an AI’s computational processing. The presentation will follow a “just-in-time” strategy for learning, by introducing perspectives and characterizations of AI processes that are important to the week’s second section, which asks students to reflect on AI’s societal relevance.

Section (2), entitled “the Meaning of AIs,” interrogates the meaning, history, and applicability of “intelligence” from various angles, fostering human-centered thinking as the foundation of ethical and civic engagement. This discussed-based section, following the format of the flipped-classroom, will comprise take-home readings or viewings of materials posted on Brightspace or a site; in-class discussions; online virtual forum posts and responses that help students continue their critical reflections beyond the confines of the classroom; and group presentations on the given week/cycle’s topic, which will be arranged around different schools of ethical thought such as consequentialism, pragmatism, deontology, or virtue ethics; guest lectures from Vanderbilt faculty in divinity, humanities, business school, and law. Section 1 will also include guest speakers, to include virtual interviews with AI developers in corporate settings. Both sections may include field trips to on-campus locales that offer a rich array of resources, such as the the Wond’ry at the Innovation Center, Robotics Labs, and the Videogame Archive at the Curb Center, among others.

Combined, the two sections will provide students with an invaluable opportunity to gain cross-disciplinary exposure while harnessing their expertise and interest to promote collaborative knowledge production. Those who lack technical background will acquire the skills to peek behind the mysterious facades of the thinking machine, while others who are less occasioned to take humanities courses will be prompted to contextualize their training in light of ethical, social, and cultural values.

The course will culminate toward creative student projects as the final assignment, starting with a mid-term project proposal where students will outline the content and objective of their product in consultation with the instructors and each other. Students will be encouraged to draw from their own disciplinary expertise and/or interest, and also utilize the assignment to enrich or kickstart their Immersion project, if applicable. Proposals must articulate the content of the project, rationale behind the choice theme/subject/material and how it aligns with the course topic of AI ethics; and how the medium/form informs and embodies the content. Throughout the second-half of the semester, students will collaboratively workshop project ideas in Section 2 and build prototypes in Section 1, and present their final products in a Research Fair-type final conference at the end of the term before submitting their work. Each student will also be asked to submit a reflection essay, critically analyzing how they applied class content and what they learned through the design and production process by doing so. Projects may vary in form depending on the student’s major and interest, ranging from creative writing, short films, ethnographic surveys, apps, videogames, programming tools, service platform designs, and more. Given its trans-institutional nature and timely topic, the course will be of interest to undergraduate students in a variety of disciplines across the college of Arts and Sciences, Peabody, Engineering, and Blair; and potentially of graduate and professional students as well, at Divinity, Management, Law, Medicine, and Nursing.