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17 March 2019

AI and the Shifting Boundaries between Computing and the Humanities



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Some time ago I reported on a new $1B investment at MIT to create the new Schwartzman Centre for Computing using a gift of $350M from Blackstone founder Stephen Schwartzman. MIT recently held a celebration and began outlining the main focus for this center (not without some controversy). The main aim of this massive investment is seen as a major restructuring of MIT to create a central hub of AI research that cuts across all other disciplines.

Here’s a little thought exercise for you. If you were designing a new $1B research center on the future of computing and AI, what would be its focus and approach? Take a moment to think about that. It is a huge opportunity and a massive responsibility. How would you shape the activities and describe the outcomes you want to achieve?

I am incredibly encouraged by a recent article in MIT Technology Review entitled “There’s no such thing as a “tech person” in the age of AI” reviewing the latest ideas coming out of MIT for how they seem to be answering these questions. According to the article, the direction for the new center is to bring together technology and the humanities.

Faculty at the new college will work with other MIT departments to cross-pollinate ideas. Classes will also be designed so that technical skills, social sciences, and the humanities are bound up together within each course rather than learned separately.

I have long argued that the most interesting areas of work right now sit at a critical intersection between computer science, data science, and social science: Not only do we need improved digital technologies driving new sources of data being analyzed by more effective machine learning algorithms, we need to be asking better, deeper, more meaningful questions of that data to understand more about our work, our lives, our society, and ourselves. This seems to the focus of MIT’s new center. As Karen Hao notes, there are many challenges to achieving this, not the least of which is overcoming the cultural and organizational boundaries that exist in academic and research institutions that have created huge structural impediments to such cross-cutting activities. The new Schwartzman Centre is taking direct aim at these.

But Hao also takes this argument much further. She takes the stance that the impact of AI is much deeper than a technology play because it has shifted our view of how we frame our understanding of key elements of our society, citing arguments raised in Kissinger’s influential essay from 2018. In particular, the impact of this view is a new approach to how we learn and work. Technology and the humanities are two sides of the same AI coin.

Such an integrated approach is essential. For me, the importance of Hao’s article is that brings several critical ideas together. And very high in the growing list of “I wish I had said that” is this statement…which I now plan to adopt more directly as my own personal mission statement:

To dismantle our outdated notions that technology is for the tech people and social problems are for the humanities people; that there is such thing as a “math person,” which is certainly not the same as a “people person.” These are false dichotomies, and perpetuating them is proving more and more detrimental.

In an increasingly digital society, I strongly believe that traditional discipline boundaries have broken down, and we need new ways of viewing ourselves and the world around us. That’s the fundamental challenge we all face in this digital revolution. That’s where we can all make a difference.