Gaining perspective through interdisciplinary collaboration

Simron Singh, Audrey Chung, Justin Carpenter, George Dixon, and Jeff Casello at GRADtalks

From left to right: Simron Singh, Audrey Chung, Justin Carpenter, George Dixon, and Jeff Casello at GRADtalks Beyond 60: The Promises and Realities of Artificial Intelligence.

We are Audrey Chung and Justin Carpenter, two PhD candidates at the University of Waterloo, and we were the speakers at Beyond 60: The Promises and Realities of Artificial Intelligence. We’re from different disciplines — Systems Design Engineering and English — and, as a result, approach the topic of artificial intelligence quite differently. Regardless of whether you’re knee-deep in deep learning or critical thinking, we both realized that it’s staggeringly easy to lose perspective when it comes to the implications (both positive and negative) of advancing research.

“I don't think you're giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody's ever done before ...” — Jurassic Park

Justin CarpenterWhen I applied to speak for GRADtalks it was not actually intentional. I meant to offer some advice to the Faculty of Arts student who had come in and agreed to speak. Fortunately, I wound up volunteering myself in the end because I think it's important to discuss difficult issues with academics from different backgrounds and with expertise beyond my own. Speaking at GRADtalks, I found that there were expectations I held about those coming from the STEM side of the discussion that were largely disproved, and there were assumptions held about my field that I found myself working against as well.

Despite this, my GRADtalks experience has shown me that every debate, even the debate around something as complex as AI, can be made more robust and interesting when people from different perspectives are asked to talk.  Speaking with Audrey has shown me that the Arts can have a valuable role in the machine-intelligent future, and not just one that rejects and condemns, but helps to shape this future. If a student of English can engage in a productive debate about something as removed from their field as AI, then we should consider being less rigid in who we talk to about such things.  And, if my GRADtalks experience has shown me anything, it's that we have a lot to talk about together.

— Justin

“Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.” — Jurassic Park

Audrey ChungAs my research and work hinge on the assumption that AI and machine learning will better our lives, it is relatively straightforward for me to argue in favour of advancing AI research. Throughout this GRADtalks experience, however, I’ve been reminded of the importance of perspective in research. While we’re all guilty of this to some extent, I have found scientists are perhaps most prone to focusing whole-heartedly on their research with little or no consideration of some of the more subtle implications of the research they conduct. In the excitement of researching something new, it is remarkably easy to lose sight of the moral and social implications associated with emerging technological advances. Regardless of how promising new research or technology is, we should always take the time to consider the impact (both positive and negative) it might have on our society. Too often we lose perspective of what’s important as a society in our pursuit of what is new, frequently with unforeseen consequences.

It takes an outside perspective to remind us of the dangers of reckless innovation, which is what makes collaboration between different disciplines (e.g., English and Engineering) so invaluable. It’s an admirable pursuit to push the boundaries of what is possible, but it should be done with care. Speaking with Justin on the topic, he had previously noted regarding the approaching age of AI that we need to think about these things now – we only get one shot at getting it right.

— Audrey

Lastly, we would like to thank the GRADtalks team (Dr. Jeff Casello, Dr. Simron Singh, Marta Bailey and Tasha Glover) and our supervisors (Dr. Alexander Wong and Dr. Paul Fieguth from Systems Design Engineering, and Dr. Beth Coleman from English) for their guidance during this experience. It’s been an honour sharing our thoughts and perspectives on AI with everyone!

Audrey Chung is a PhD candidate in Systems Design Engineering. Her research focuses on making artificial intelligence accessible to everyone via highly-efficient and compact neural networks.

Justin Carpenter is a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature, focusing on aesthetics, philosophy of technology, critical game studies, and new media art.

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