Artificial Intelligence (AI) is developing at breakneck speed. While the technology presents a hopeful prospect for human welfare, it also poses the potential to dehumanize and even destroy us.

This unique seminar will bridge the humanities and the sciences, offering a literary and technological investigation of the challenges posed by AI. The first two sessions, led by MIT Professor Bernhardt Trout, will consider the scientific and ethical questions around AI—what constitutes true artificial intelligence and how we should live with intelligent minds alien to our own. The following sessions, led by Skidmore political theorist Flagg Taylor, will focus on a close reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel on AI, Klara and the Sun.

Image Credit: Abysmal/Void, Ars Electronica, Flickr

Bernhardt Trout on Safeguarding Our Humanity in the Age of AI


Flagg Taylor

Flagg Taylor is an Associate Professor of Government at Skidmore College, and serves on the Academic Council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He is editor most recently of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977–1989. He is currently writing a book on Czech dissent in the 1970s and 1980s and hosts The Enduring Interest podcast.

Bernhardt Trout

Bernhardt L. Trout is the Raymond F. Baddour, ScD, (1949) Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of the MIT Society, Engineering, and Ethics Program. He received his S.B. and S.M. degrees from MIT and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. In addition, he performed post-doctoral research at the Max-Planck Institute. Professor Trout is the co-editor of the 2016 volume Mastery of Nature.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions: 

  1. Summarize how machine learning/artificial intelligence works and illustrate with simple diagrams. Feel free to use other resources in addition to the Khan Academy link. 
  2. What criteria does Turing lay out about what intelligence means? Do you agree or not? Why or why not? 
  3. Which Contrary View (or Views) do you find most compelling, and why? 
  4. Summarize Bacon’s Idols. By presenting them as he does, what does he wish to accomplish? 



Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the kinds of friendship according to Aristotle?
  2. Which sort are most of your friends?
  3. Can an AI bot be a friend using the criteria of Aristotle? Why or why not?
  4. What are Turkle’s key points of critique?
  5. How does Konnikova address the question of AI and friendship? What about Jordan say about this same question?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is noteworthy about how Klara encounters the world around her?
  2. How does it happen that Klara ends up being purchased by Josie and her mother? Why is Klara chosen rather than another AF?
  3. What does the interaction meeting suggest about social life in the world of the novel?
  4. What do we learn about Klara’s mother from the trip to Morgan Falls?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the “bubble game,” and why does it end up causing a rift between Josie and Rick?
  2. What are Helen’s plans for her son Rick? To what extent does Rick share in her enthusiasm for these plans?
  3. What does Klara hope to accomplish during her trip to Mr. McBain’s barn? What does this trip reveal to us about Klara and her relationship with Josie?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is Mr. Capaldi’s plan for Klara? How ought we to understand the relationship between the way he intends to use AFs with the way that AFs like Klara are used as a solution to the problem of loneliness?
  2. How do the other characters in the book react to Mr. Capaldi’s plan?
  3. Helen arranges a meeting for her son with an old friend who might be able to help Rick get into college. Who bears responsibility for this meeting going so badly?
  4. How do these two threads of the novel—the possibility of Josie’s continuation and Rick’s possible future—relate to one another thematically?



Discussion Questions: 

  1. The novel presents us with at least three different kinds of technology: Artificial Intelligence/robots; genetic editing (“lifting”); and drones. What fruitful comparisons might readers draw in thinking about the portrayal of each one? 
  2. Is Klara correct in telling Manager, at the conclusion of the novel, that she had a successful home and gave Josie “good service?” 
  3. Does Klara fit into any of the Aristotelian conceptions of friendship?  
  4. Compare Klara with Ava of Ex Machina. What sorts of concerns do Garland and Ishiguro have about artificial intelligence?  

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