Taking AI to the Humanities World

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

When MIT’s new College of Computing starts in Fall 2019, it won’t just teach computer science students. The Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will target what MIT president Leo Rafael Reif calls “bilinguals” — students who will learn to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to address challenges in areas like political science, economics, linguistics, anthropology, and urban studies.

The billion-dollar investment is a big deal, but not just because it is the one of the largest monetary bets on the application and ethics of computing and AI by an American academic institution. Or, for that matter, because of the $350 million foundational gift from Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chairman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, a leading private equity firm.

What makes the new college stand out is its ambitious mission: It will reorient MIT to bring the power of computing and AI to all fields of study. In turn, it will shape the future of computing and AI, molded by insights from many disciplines, including the humanities. “We are reshaping MIT,” explained Reif.

Meeting Gen Z Needs

The new college, MIT’s president shared, is the school’s “strategic response to a global phenomenon — the ubiquity of computing and the rise of AI.” Yet for Reif, computing is no longer the domain of experts alone.

“It’s everywhere, and it needs to be understood and mastered by almost everyone,” he elaborated in a letter to the MIT community. “For a host of reasons, society is uneasy about technology — and at MIT, that’s a signal we must take very seriously.”

The move to give weight to AI and its applications seems to have reached Gen Z, those born after the mid-1990s, too. According to a recent research study by Dell Technologies that surveyed 12,000 students between ages 16 and 23, across 17 countries — 97 percent of Gen Z students agreed that technology literacy matters. What’s more, four out of every five people polled said they aspire to work with cutting-edge technology.

Over 50 percent also stated that future jobs will need technology skills because they will be working with robots or some other form of technology. Finally, about a third of those surveyed said that everyone needs technology skills and that people who understand technology will be the future leaders. (More than half of those surveyed reported that technology was changing the world and “you have to understand it.”)

If this research is any indication, Gen Z is hungry for AI education in a traditional academic setting, as well as in the real world. But MIT is not the only academic institute reshaping itself to meet their demands. Stanford’s Human-Centered AI initiative is a university-wide effort that taps into a wide range of disciplines from neuroscience to ethics to catalyze multidisciplinary research and train future AI leaders.

At Carnegie Mellon, the BXA InterCollege degree program targets students interested in fields that meld technology and arts, such as game design, computer animation, computer music, recording technologies, and robotic art. The school’s Music and Technology program also offers a set of courses that span across music, electrical engineering, and computer science.

“Portions of what we call AI are now pervasive and are finding applications everywhere,” agreed Yiannis Papelis, research professor and director of the Virtual Reality and Robotics Lab at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC). Old Dominion University, where VMASC is based, also offers an Individualized Integrated Interdisciplinary Studies program.

“It’s time for academia to change with the world and embrace interdisciplinary fields around [new] technologies,” Papelis said.

The New Tech-Literacy Formula

This shift towards interdisciplinary education is not without its challenges. The biggest problem, according to Papelis, is that these new courses don’t fit into the traditional academic paradigm.

“This new approach means that we will need to break down silos and academic structures that have existed for years,” he said. While the shift won’t be easy, he reiterated that “problems in life don’t come in neat packages with specific outlines.” Just as students will face multidisciplinary obstacles in the real world, academia must also adopt a multifaceted approach to AI education.

MIT seems to be doing exactly that kind of innovating with its new College of Computing, for instance, the way it is hiring for tenure positions: The school will offer 50 new faculty positions, half of which will be bridge positions — dual appointments between the new college and academic departments located in any one of MIT’s five schools.

The goal, Papelis explained, is not to drop the specializations that the university worked so hard to create — it is simply about accepting that everyone needs to study technologies like AI, no matter what their field of study or their future job aspirations. The formula to prepare the next generation for an AI-driven world, he said, is not to change the entire curriculum but to “fold AI it into existing courses.”

For the students who don’t go on to become AI experts in the traditional sense, “they might not build deep learning models to recognize patterns, but they will be aware of what AI is, what it can do, and how to bring AI tools to their field,” he said.

These multidisciplinary academic structures around AI, Papelis pointed out, will be key to positioning AI as “an integral part of basic technology literacy, no matter what field of study you choose.”