Bowdoin Selected for National Initiative on AI Ethics

By Tom Porter

Bowdoin is one of a handful of schools from across the nation involved in a new project aimed at developing academic courses that tackle the ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

artificial intelligence - stock image
Image: Mike McKenzie, via Wikimedia Commons

Sponsored by Google and the National Humanities Center (NHC), the Responsible Artificial Intelligence Curriculum Design Project grew out of mounting concern among academics over the extent to which AI permeates many aspects of our lives and the ethical questions raised by the implications of this. Representatives from fifteen universities and colleges, including Bowdoin, will partner with the NHC to develop undergraduate courses to examine the issue from a number of different angles.

"Our selection committee valued the diverse perspectives that different types of higher education institutions would contribute to this project,” said Andy Mink, the NHC’s vice president for education programs. “As a small liberal arts college, Bowdoin represents a unique setting with an exceptionally bright and engaged student body. Also, considering Bowdoin's academic culture, we anticipated that they would fully embrace the interdisciplinary possibilities for this work.”

Bowdoin has assembled a team of four faculty members who will cocreate and coteach this course. The two principal investigators on the project are computer scientist Eric Chown, who is the Sarah and James Bowdoin Professor of Digital and Computational Studies (DCS), and Assistant Professor of Digital and Computational Studies (DCS) Fernando Nascimento, who has a background in philosophy.

chown, cooper, franz, nascimento
L-r: Eric Chown, Allison Cooper, Michael Franz, Fernando Nascimento

“This is exactly the sort of area we focus on at the DCS program, so I’m sure that’s one of the reasons we were chosen for this award,” said Chown. One example of this kind of work that’s already underway is the Computing Ethics Narratives, another national initiative involving Bowdoin faculty aimed at integrating ethics into undergraduate computer science curricula at American colleges and universities.

Other faculty involved in the NHC project are cinema studies scholar Allison Cooper, who is also an assistant professor of Romance languages and literatures, and Professor of Government Michael Franz. While his colleagues will work on the broader ethical issues regarding AI, Chown’s focus will be more on teaching the nuts and bolts behind the subject.

“My work in machine learning and artificial intelligence will serve basically to study what's going on in AI and how it works. Then we'll look at various applications and, using the work of Fernando and Alison, students will be asked to consider questions like ‘What are the developers’ goals when they're doing this?’ ‘How is this impacting users?’” Franz, meanwhile, will focus on issues surrounding government regulation in the AI sphere and what the political implications might be.

“The selection of Bowdoin as one of the fifteen institutions sponsored by the initiative indicates the relevance of liberal arts to the discussion,” said Nascimento, who heads to NHC headquarters in North Carolina on June 20, representing the College at a five-day conference to discuss next steps. “It’s important that we define our objectives and our limitations as we develop this transformative technology so that it effectively promotes the common good.”

"Students will be asked to consider questions like ‘What are the developers’ goals...?’ ‘How is this impacting users?’”

“I was thrilled to learn that Bowdoin was one of the institutions selected by the National Humanities Center, and also to have the opportunity to work with colleagues in DCS and government on the project,” said Cooper, who uses computational methods to analyze film language in her research and contributed moving image narratives from film and television to the Computing Ethics Narratives project.

“We all share the belief that contemporary films and media can raise especially thought-provoking questions about AI for our students,” she added, citing movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ex Machina, and The Matrix. Cooper anticipates the new collaborative course will involve integrating this type of study with classes about actual technologies. “This should offer our students a truly unique opportunity to move back and forth between speculative and applied approaches to understanding AI.” (Learn more about Kinolab–an online searchable database of media clips launched by Cooper for cinema students and scholars.)

Participants in the new project will, over the next twelve months, design a semester-long course to be taught during the following academic year. They will then reconvene in the summer of 2024 to share their experiences and discuss the future of the project. Cooper and Franz anticipate that their experience coteaching with their DCS colleagues will lead to the future development of stand-alone courses focusing on AI in their respective fields of cinema studies and government.

“It’s really exciting for Bowdoin to be involved with such a diverse cross section of schools in this project,” said Director of Academic Advancement and Strategic Priorities Allison Crosscup, whose responsibilities include the development of grant-seeking opportunities at the College. Crosscup identified three factors above all that make Bowdoin an ideal partner in the project. “At the faculty level we’ve got the Computing Ethics Narratives project; at the academic level we’ve got DCS, which in 2019 became a full-fledged academic program; and at the institutional level we have the ‘K report’,* which also promotes ethical decision-making, so we’re hitting all three levels. “Overall,” she concluded, “this project presents a great opportunity to leverage work that’s already being done here and to build on it.”

According to the project’s timeline, students will be able to enroll in the new collaborative course on ethics in AI during the 2023–2024 academic year. The class will be taught over one semester by the four faculty members highlighted above.

*Refers to the KSCD report, an initiative launched by President Clayton Rose in 2018 to identify the knowledge, skills, and creative dispositions every Bowdoin student should possess in a decade's time.

Partner Institutions in the Responsible Artificial Intelligence Curriculum Design Project:

Arizona State University; Bowdoin College; Case Western Reserve University; Davidson College; Duke University; George Mason University; Johnson C. Smith University; North Carolina State University; Rice University; Swarthmore College; Texas A&M University; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of Florida; University of Georgia; University of Utah.