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President Greene announces the first cross-disciplinary institute for AI at a Liberal Arts College

On Jan. 28, 2021, members of the Colby community, including faculty, students, alumni, and parents logged onto Zoom for a highly-anticipated announcement that President David A. Greene had promised to deliver earlier in the week. Those present soon learned of the College’s plan to establish the Davis Institute of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The Institute was made possible by a $30 million gift from Andrew Davis `85, LL.D. `15. The Davis family has formerly given gifts to the College, including $25 million to establish DavisConnects and another $10 million for the Davis Science Center.

Emily Riley `23 described her mixed reaction to the announcement: “I was excited for what it would do for Colby and its students, but I’ve always been a little bit wary of AI. While AI undoubtedly has the power to do amazing things and advance society, it also presents a lot of philosophical and ethical issues.”

Riley said that she is comforted by the idea of AI being developed in a liberal arts school so that it can be approached from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The center is one of the first of its kind and will change the definition of what a liberal arts institution can do. The AI program at the College reinforces Greene’s ambition to make machine learning available to all Colby students regardless of major.

In the video announcement, Greene emphasized the prevalence of artificial intelligence in all fields and the need to provide students with the right tools to compete in the job market.

The specifics of how the institute will work are still in development. The College expects a lot of input to come from faculty yet to be hired for the institute. The College is looking to hire six experts in the AI field immediately, including a director.

Staying true to its core liberal arts values, there will be five main areas of studies for AI implementation, including economics and finance, computational social sciences, computational biology, the environment & the ocean, and ethics & society.

In an interview with The Colby Echo, Assistant Professor of Statistics Jerzy Wieczorek said that although he does not yet know what impact the AI program will have on the statistics department, he is looking forward to the prospect of the program.

 “I’m excited for the opportunity to help Colby students think about the foundation of statistical concepts, algorithms, and building things based off data which are all intrinsically tied to AI,” Wieczorek said.

Provost and Dean of Faculty Magaret McFadden explained how students will interact with the institute. Courses will first be offered in disciplines that already exist at the College. This structure is expected to change as the institute develops further.

“Most students will be exposed to AI organically in their areas of study and majors,” McFadden added. “The idea is for institute faculty to work with other faculty across all disciplines who are interested in course development support for adding AI-related materials into their curricula.”

McFadden explained that the goal is to make AI accessible to everyone regardless of prior experience. Students should not expect the institute to be exclusively coding and computer science.

“It’s important to understand that the institute is not just about gaining technology skills,” she said. “We want it to reach and include students with expertise from across the curriculum – humanities, social science, interdisciplinary studies – so they can bring crucial knowledge and perspectives to the study and practice of AI.”

She echoed Riley’s sentiment that this interdisciplinary approach will make the AI program more ethical, pointing out known issues with the technology.

“We all know about algorithms that seem to produce racist and sexist outcomes, or the privacy and civil rights implications of things like facial recognition,” McFadden said.

The initial plan is to establish a summer institute through the Davis Center of Artificial Intelligence, where AI students and faculty from all across the country can come and conduct their own teaching and learning through Colby.

Riley, a psychology and history double major, sees AI potentially influencing her studies here at the College.

“History is always important when looking at the future. If we don’t learn from the past, we risk making the same mistakes. Psychology could have possible connections as we compare the human mind to AI. Philosophy has obvious connections. What are the ethics of creating artificial intelligence? Where is the line between AI and the human mind? These are just some of the questions that [arise],” she said.

Riley hopes that AI can strengthen her liberal arts education.

On a final note, McFadden noted that “like any new skill, it may take some effort to understand and apply it, but I’m confident our faculty will work hard so that every student succeeds. We have a smart and talented student body, and they will master the tools they need and want so they can be part of a future that avoids the bad outcomes of AI – the liberal arts version of AI, not the giant corporation/defense department version.”

~Fiona Huo `23

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