On Oct 1, MSU was honored by the presence of some of the top pioneers in artificial intelligence (AI) and biodiversity. Six researchers and educators, including Dr. Eric Horvitz, the managing director at Microsoft Research Laboratory and Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, a MIT professor and pioneer in robotics, received the George R. Stibitz Computer and Communications Award. MSU’s own Cathy Whitlock and John Priscu, along with author Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and the sociobiologist Rebecca Costa, were awarded the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award. Not one, but two Pulitzer Prize winners, Dr. Douglas Hofstadter and Dr. Edward O. Wilson, were in attendance. Hofstadter was among the award recipients. Indeed, some great thinkers were brought together on our very own campus but two weeks ago. All may not have felt the magnitude of the event, but it was an incredible opportunity nevertheless.
After the awards were given the floor was opened up for what MSU described as “. . . a public forum where artificial intelligence and the future of humanity and biodiversity will be discussed.” In this regard, MSU is guilty of false advertising. Though the panel was intended to discuss biodiversity and AI, the question askers, described by the moderator as representing MSU’s best and brightest, clearly had not adequately prepared to discuss the subjects at hand. Though it can be intimidating and difficult to moderate or ask questions in such a large panel, when there is limited time and a large audience, the experience remains an embarrassment toward MSU.
The students who asked questions, despite being students in computer science and biology, focused the conversation on philosophical questions, maybe in part because the moderator herself was a philosophy professor. This is surprising considering I, and many others — including, presumably, the panelists themselves — expected the discussion to cover AI and biodiversity.
Being from the disciplines that were targeted in discussion, one may think the panellists, in preparation, would have reviewed John McCarthy’s Basic Questions resource online. This FAQ page informs us that, “The human mind has a lot of peculiarities, and I’m not sure anyone is serious about imitating all of them.” He earlier defines AI as, “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs,” not the uploading of the human brain or conscious into a machine. Though Hollywood may love the concept of robots taking over the world, the study of AI is far less apocalyptic and far more complex than Will Smith’s experience in “I, Robot”.
There were no direct questions asked about how AI could influence research and understanding in biodiversity and ecology. This was a disappointment, in part because that was purportedly the entire point of the panel, and in part because the merging of AI and what we consider “natural” is a fascinating and important topic. The potential for development of new climate models, for example, could play a role in the human race’s ability to adapt in the face of climate change.
I am a strong proponent of cross-disciplinary work. The questions having a philosophical twist was not the root of the problem. In fact, if there had truly been an array of disciplines represented, including but not exclusive to philosophy, the conversation could have been better directed. The main issue was that those doing the questioning at least appeared to have little knowledge on the subjects at hand. This is surprising, considering the topic was the their area of study, nevertheless their expertise did not show through the questions asked.
One computer science student, who chose to remain anonymous, felt that his/her department was misrepresented at the panel, commenting, “ (other) Students in our department would have given a limb to be asking the panel questions, and it is not just us. Students in engineering would have been more than happy to step up as well.”
While it may look nice to have three students with high academic status take the stage for such an event, their majors or connections mean little if they are not able to engage the panelist in relevant subject matter. We can only hope that the next panel will focus more on subjects that need to be discussed for a rapidly changing world and less on resume padding.