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Katherine Elkins Encourages Mounties to Have a Voice on AI

Donna Klinger

In delivering the 2023 Meredith Donovan Lecture in early November, Katherine L. Elkins, Ph.D., of Kenyon College aided Mount St. Mary’s University in considering how to equip students to critically and ethically engage in a world that is likely to be reshaped by artificial intelligence (AI) as well as gave students ideas about ways they can contribute to this new world.

 

katherine-elkins-in-text.jpgThe AI epoch’s development has accelerated with GPT-4, the recently updated generative chatbot from OpenAI, and other machine-based AI. Earlier good-old-fashioned AI, or GOFAI, used pre-defined rules and explicit logic to look for known patterns.

Elkins’ contributions as a researcher and thought leader on artificial intelligence are helping to shape the intersection of humanities and AI. Elkins, professor of comparative literature and humanities at Kenyon College, in recent years, has concentrated her scholarship and teaching on AI and its integration into music, literature and foreign languages. She has been instrumental in developing the Integrated Program in Humane Studies concentration at Kenyon College which involves courses that weave together all four branches of the liberal arts: social science, natural science, art and humanities. To think about how to create a curriculum that reinvents the continuum of learning, Elkins learned computing and coding, shared Associate Professor of Political Science Amanda Krause, Ph.D., in introducing the speaker.

“We were seeing a major decline in the comparative literature major, and even our best graduates were having trouble being placed in the workforce. We had to rethink the entire curriculum,” Elkins said. “I’m concerned about leaving AI decisions to engineers alone. There’s room for you to have a voice, and I ask you to have a voice.”

Elkins teaches classes like “Programming Humanity” that explores data collection, metadata and how to critically analyze data for biases and misrepresentation. “Cultural Analytics” tracks social media networks and explains how machine learning and human language patterns in posts produce social media feeds and recommended content. Elkins’ most popular course, “AI for the Humanities,” ties the philosophical concepts of ethics and epistemology together with the unexplored “black box” that AI tends to be.

“We need humanists conversant in AI who can critique and shape the future that AI may restructure,” Elkins said. “AI forces us to ask questions about what it means to be human. The only way to answer these questions is to develop an understanding of the world that is both broad and deep, since these questions cannot be answered within any single discipline or major.

Elkins teaches classes like “Programming Humanity” that explores data collection, metadata and how to critically analyze data for biases and misrepresentation. “Cultural Analytics” tracks social media networks and explains how machine learning and human language patterns in posts produce social media feeds and recommended content. Elkins’ most popular course, “AI for the Humanities,” ties the philosophical concepts of ethics and epistemology together with the unexplored “black box” that AI tends to be.

Elkins cautioned the audience to avoid saying that AI will never be able to do certain things. “Self-improvement and replication are the scary thing,” she remarked. “It could destroy everything once it is smart enough to improve itself. I don’t think it will be the end of the world, but a few people can make that case.”

The purpose of this Meredith Donovan Lecture series is based on the ideals of its namesakes, Professor Emeritus of Biology William Meredith, Ph.D., and the late Emeritus Professor of Philosophy John Donovan, Ph.D., who always found intersections between their disciplines. Both were renowned for their friendship and their constant engagement with students.

This lecture series serves as the foundation of greater discussions in and outside of the classroom between faculty and students to expand their knowledge everywhere with everyone. This talk is funded by Raphael Della Ratta, C’92, whose sizeable donation works to continue the mission of these two professors. Others interested in continuing this mission may donate here.

 

Donna Klinger