College life in Pittsburgh

This Carnegie Mellon class will make you question humanity

But don’t worry, that’s the goal.

Carnegie Mellon University Bio Robotics Laboratory students demonstrate the Snake Robot and Snake Monster at the White House Frontiers Conference in Oct 2016.

Carnegie Mellon University Bio Robotics Laboratory students demonstrate the Snake Robot and Snake Monster at the White House Frontiers Conference in Oct 2016.

Jasmine Goldband / THE INCLINE
MJ Slaby

What can robots tell us about humanity?

It’s a question that Jennifer Keating was inspired to explore after hearing Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics and director of the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, speak on ethics and robots.

Keating, the assistant dean for educational initiatives in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said Nourbakhsh’s lecture spoke to ideas about power dynamics and the history of human ownership of other humans. So the duo paired to teach a new class: “Artificial Intelligence and Humanity.”

The course poses questions about the definition of humanity, in the context of slavery and colonialism to rapidly developing technology and artificial intelligence.

It’s the latest class to be featured by The Incline in a series of unique local college courses that make you say, “Why wasn’t that a class when I was in school?” Other classes in the series focus on texting, “Lemonade,” going on tourpro wrestling and zombies. Sign up here to have the stories sent straight to your inbox, and tell us about classes we should feature here.

This CMU class, attended by half computer science students and half humanities and social science students, is part of the “Freshman Seminar Grand Challenges” bringing together students and faculty in multiple fields.

The computer science students examine the intended and unintended bias of their work and the humanities students navigate technology questions, Keating said.

This is work that pushes boundaries, she said, adding that the questions in the course can’t be addressed in a single field of study. So how do they tackle questions about robots and humanity? The Incline spoke with Keating to find out.

Historical context

To discuss questions around human dignity and jobs, students look at the histories of slavery and colonialism, Keating said.

One reading example is the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a firsthand account of the humanity and individuality of slaves, she said, adding that preventing slaves from reading acted as an attempt to limit their humanity.

More than a century later, Westinghouse Co. made a post-abolition robot in the 1930s resembling a sharecropper and advertised to help with chores, Keating said, describing another topic on the syllabus.

“When we think about robots, we have the science fiction examples of robots doing tasks that people don’t want to do,” she said. If that’s the case, what does that say about humanity and an impact on jobs? If manual and unskilled labor are done by robots, what does that mean for the working class?

Are robots people?

Picture a robot. It probably has a face and is personified in the way we interact with it. But Keating poses these questions: Can it mimic human intellect? Does it have feelings?

In addition to historical reading, students think about robots and humanity in episodes of “Black Mirror” and “Star Trek.” They also visit the places where robotics work is happening at CMU and Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.

A class like this can be difficult because there are no black-and-white answers, she admitted, adding that a lot of governments and other leaders are already scrambling to keep up with the speed of technology.

“None of us have the answers,” she makes clear to students. But they someday might. These students will be the industry and government leaders, making decisions, Keating said.

Recommended reading

Want to know more on this topic? Here are Keating’s suggestions:

Here’s a look at the class schedule, too:

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