Toward Singularity: A Class on Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence, and History

I gave a class today in my online Digital History course on the connection between neuroscience, AI, and history. My initial plan was to deliver it as the last class on Apr 10, to summarize the course while raising questions about the future of historical research considering the rise of AI. I also wanted to ponder how researchers in history can utilize interdisciplinary approaches such as this biological-technological one. However, both the timing of the class and its discussion took their own direction.

Due to logistical reasons, the class took place earlier; that’s fine. The discussion, however, surprised me, and I’m now wondering why what seems fascinating and important to me didn’t get students’ focus and attention. We started with watching the excellent documentary Toward Singularity, directed by Matthew Dahlitz (2020, 1:05 hrs). In it, Dahlitz combines experts’ insights into brain studies and the development of AI, as well as the experts’ vision of the latter in the near and far future. One example is Dr. Nicole Robinson’s work on integrating robots into human society and environment, to achieve a symbiotic relationship between them and people. Another example is Dr. David Howard’s work on making robots a species that has the capacity to change over time through Darwinian evolution.

I planned to think with the students about history: How will it look in the future? Would robots or intelligent machines write “our” (whatever it means) history? In fact, with the current GPT technologies, it’s already taking place. Further, can historians utilize this bio-tech approach to advance their historical knowledge? Would super-intelligent machines correct our misconceptions of history? Or perhaps misrepresent it altogether? To make these issues the core of the discussion, I went over two slides before we watched the film. The first shows the chapters in the film, which indicate how the director defined the main questions and arranged them in order (Fig. 1). As I regularly upload the slides to the course website, this list will also enable the students to re-watch the chapters that interest them most.

Fig. 1 Digital History – slide with chapters from Toward Singularity

The second slide shows the concepts the experts in the film explain, which I supposed will shape the discussion as I planned (Fig. 2). I knew that when the students watch the film, they will already have those concepts in their minds and hoped that it’d make it easier for us to discuss the future of human history and historiography. Nevertheless, after watching the film, a significant part of the discussion focused on aspects that characterize humans as service givers, which – so it was assumed – are impossible to imitate. Interestingly, it was in response to Dr. Peter Bishop’s argument that the existing process of deskilling society with machines in workplaces will only increase as machines become more intelligent. The result of this development, he says, is the deskilling of the professional, educated class. This argument triggered the students who found the description of the “unskilled” class elitist and unrealistic as it ignores the additional “human qualities” they bring into their roles, which cannot be replaced by machines. Although I planned to talk about the future of historical research considering current developments, we had dived into class tensions; those between theoreticians and the working class, and those between humans and machines.

Fig. 2 Digital History – slide with concepts from Toward Singularity and a question

What can we learn from this situation? I think that the students gravitated to what is most relevant to their present: finding their place in the world as they develop their skill set and before they have a clear professional identity. This journey is challenging even when AI, social robots, and super-intelligent algorithms are not part of the game. In the documentary, Dr. Ronald Arkin claims that the “robotics revolution” poses threat to employment, but that new jobs will be created as well. According to him, it’s necessary for society to provide a safety net as we move through it. However, he adds, “one could argue that no job is safe, even that of a professor.”

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