Ivan Ilitch, a former Roman Catholic priest and philosopher, questioned technology’s benefits. His text, Tools for Conviviality, published in 1973, discussed the appropriate use of technology. One of his concerns was that technology might replace our ability to exercise free will. In discussing artificial intelligence in 2023, his characterization of “convivial tools” rings true in contemporary society regarding AI. He said, “Tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.”
John McCarthy of Stanford University answered the question, “What is Artificial Intelligence,” in the 2007 published paper of the same name, “What is Artificial Intelligence?” He said,” It (AI) is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. It is related to the similar task of using computers to understand human intelligence, but AI does not have to confine itself to methods that are biologically observable.” In plain terms, I would suggest artificial intelligence creates machines that emulate human thinking.
Many aspects of artificial intelligence don’t fit easily into current conceptions in contemporary society. Most of us have a limited understanding of the extent to which artificial intelligence has already penetrated our day-to-day lives. For example, digital assistants, social media, transportation, food ordering, vehicle recognition, robot vacuums, email systems, job-seeking apps, chatbots, predictive searches, entertainment recommendations, online banking and airline bookings are a few examples from a long list seemingly without end. And don’t forget Google, Siri and Alexa. Artificial intelligence is not The Jetsons that some of us remember from the early sixties regarding the future. It’s here and surrounds us.
The history of the development of artificial intelligence has been a topic of interest at IBM for almost 75 years. Alan Turing published a paper on computing machinery and intelligence in 1950, following his deciphering of the ENIGMA code during World War II. He developed a test to answer the question, “Can machines think?” The results have been debated from then until now. In 1956, John McCarthy shared the term “artificial intelligence” at a conference at Dartmouth. Since then, an IBM computer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at Jeopardy! and several other machines vs. people encounters where Big Blue came out on top. They are benchmarks in the field.
MIT Technology Review has identified Lerrel Pinto of New York University as one of its 2023 innovators under 35. His work is ongoing beyond conventional vacuuming robots to a “… more integral part of our lives, doing chores, doing elder care or rehabilitation—you know, just being there when we need them?” Most important in his work is creating robots that can learn. One of the challenges in such exercises is the amount of data required to make a learning robot. This surfaces in self-driving cars now being tested in several places nationwide. Based on what I see on I-27 between my house and Amarillo, almost anything would be an improvement.
One of the most remarkable aspects is that these robots can learn from their failures. As Amy Edmonson suggested in a Harvard Business Review post on organizational culture, this is not a new concept: “The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible.” The latest twist is that we are not talking about people but machines. I have challenged the West Texas A&M University campus to reduce the cost of education to students by eliminating textbooks. A Washington, D.C. reporter asked me, “What happens if you fail.” I asked him what he meant. He asked what happens if textbooks are not free at West Texas A&M University in the fall of 2024. I responded, “What happens if we reduce the cost by 90%? Is that a failure or the beginning of a learning curve?”
The art of science will be transformed by artificial intelligence, according to a post this month in The Economist. In my investigations of using a few different AI platforms, I have found that each is like having a team of new graduate students conducting research. The work produced can be invaluable, but only when judged so by professional, experienced opinion. Until then, it is data without value. No wisdom. No knowledge. No insight from my perspective.
Reports are numerous regarding the use of AI by students to write term papers, essays and other educational works. Some students argue that the skills required to crack into AI platforms and utilize them to write or assist them in writing are invaluable for their futures. The students may or may not be correct. Faculty of today, especially those that require writing in coursework, which in my mind should be every course, must be conversive and knowledgeable about the impact of AI on students’ thinking, learning and writing skills.
At WT, our faculty, staff and students will become more familiar with various forms of artificial intelligence to stay abreast of the changing world. It is essential for a regional research University that aspires to currency, efficiency and value to and for the people we serve.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.