A Small College Hopes to Claim Artificial Intelligence for the Liberal Arts

Colby College is carving out space in the liberal arts canon for artificial intelligence.

Thanks to a $30 million gift from an alumnus, the small, selective college in Maine is establishing the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which aims to integrate machine learning, natural language processing and big data into instruction and research across the college.

“We want to be sure we’re preparing students well for their futures: lives and careers of meaning and purpose,” says Margaret McFadden, provost and dean of faculty at Colby. “Well-educated people have to understand AI, what these tools are and how to use them.”

Artificial intelligence has homes at other U.S. higher ed institutions, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Georgia, Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, and Stanford University. But leaders at Colby say its new AI institute is a first for a small liberal arts college.

“What we want to do is bring to bear all the expertise of all our disciplines in the liberal arts college on AI,” McFadden says.

Throughout higher education, disciplines like philosophy and art are laying claim to artificial intelligence and the technology that enables it. For example, a new minor program at The New School in New York City, “Code as a Liberal Art,” approaches computer science as a tool for creativity, critique and civic engagement.

Proponents of this approach say that it’s important to temper the potential power of AI by rooting it in morality, history and sociology. Embedding the study of artificial intelligence within the liberal arts will hopefully lead to it being used in “ethical ways that don’t reproduce existing social ills,” McFadden says.

For instance, plenty of people have wondered if current crises over the use of social media in democracy could have been avoided if more tech leaders had a better grounding in fields like ethics and history. In a column in The New York Times in 2018, longtime tech journalist Kara Swisher suggested that one reason for the problems at Facebook in recent years could be that founder Mark Zuckerberg “was a computer major who left college early and did not attend enough humanities courses that might have alerted him 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 hire six faculty members from different disciplines who will work within their own departments and also contribute to the institute.

“AI is changing lots of processes of research and discovery,” McFadden says. “We have to make sure faculty are ready to be on that cutting edge.”

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