For many artificial intelligence (KI) and computer science students, undergraduate psychology and philosophy courses are among the least popular. The idea prevails that these subjects are irrelevant and the amount of reading sparks resistance. But these very subjects should receive more appreciation and make the bachelor’s more than just a college degree.
I was in a Philosophy and AI lecture today. Out of 130 students, only 20 showed up. The lecturer didn’t seem surprised: he had already seen the storm at the first lecture and announced that due to lecture cancellations, few people were likely to keep coming. Next to me, two fellow students were grinning and looking up pictures of thick rope. When I asked them why, one of them replied, “I’m looking for a rope to hang myself so I don’t have to take this course anymore.”
You can attribute this statement to the exaggeration of one student, but I think it stands for more. The psychology, philosophy, and academic skills courses have never been popular. Computer science students are unenthusiastic about the ethics course in the second year, and KI students don’t see the point of the first-year psychology course. Coincidentally, I am also a teaching assistant (TA) in the latter course. And although the format of the working lectures is changed every year to get students more enthusiastic about them, a strict attendance requirement is necessary to get students to actually come.
The consequences of this unpopularity are evident: students’ writing and discussion skills lag behind. Reports are regularly sloppily cobbled together and full of spelling mistakes, but perhaps even worse, students do not always understand the point of holding active class discussions on fundamental issues about KI and digitization. This is despite the fact that it is an incredibly important skill for developers of KI and algorithms that are being rolled out publicly.
As a student and perhaps future PhD student, you need to know what biases can play a role in your data and model and who must take responsibility if your model causes the childcare benefit scandal 2.0. Without subjects that make people think, read, and write instead of programming, we are training people to be programmers who can sell well to business, but who cannot look critically at their work. In my own Philosophy and AI class, for example, a student argued adamantly that AI developments are always a positive development, even if they discriminate. I don’t want to be around if this person ever gets involved in the childcare benefit scandal 2.0.
So how do we boost the popularity of these subjects? Well, for one thing, by not always scheduling them next to a heavy math or programming class so that all the attention goes to that other subject. By having experts in psychology or ethics and computer science speak during lectures. By addressing the cluttered structure of some of these subjects. Or by just paying more attention to these topics within the other courses. Have students climb up the rope instead of...ah, you know what I mean. Either way: we are seriously shortchanging these subjects right now. High time for action, because discussing work is essential for these relatively young sciences and scientists.
Pepijn Stoop is a UvA student of artificial intelligence.