What fires you up?
We want to know. Send us a question that's on your mind. We will publish your questions here and invite our professors to weigh in.
Professors shed light on some questions that won’t leave us alone.
Driven by our own curiosity, we posed five burning questions to some of the smartest, most thoughtful people we know — Kenyon faculty members. As masters of their subjects, each one is well-qualified to offer not necessarily definitive answers, but insightful observations informed by their scholarly expertise. We learned a lot, and we hope you will, too.
A: ROB ALEXANDER | PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS AND ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES
Unmitigated climate change poses an existential threat to our way of life. A major economic study projects a long-term 20 percent reduction in global gross domestic product from climate change. To avoid such unprecedented declines, we must reduce our greenhouse emissions in the U.S. by 80 percent by 2050. This goal is realistic, but a major undertaking that requires deliberate action.
Numerous economic models demonstrate that transitioning to renewable energy is likely to result in a net economic gain for our society. That does not mean that every individual will benefit, nor that the transition with be without pain, but it does mean that the transition is likely to result in more jobs and a more efficient and resilient electricity system. A recent study by the Risky Business Project provides a framework for an approach that is both technically and economically feasible. It is based on three principal transitions: shifting from fossil fuels to electricity, generating electricity from low- and zero-carbon sources and using all energy more efficiently.
The shift from fossil fuels to electricity includes the gradual adoption of electric vehicles, electric and geothermal heat pumps, and electricity in industrial processes. The shift to renewable electricity production requires a rapid transition to zero-carbon sources, like wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear, along with an expansion of energy-storage technologies and a redesigned grid to reduce the variability impacts of wind and solar. The potential for increased efficiency in energy use is significant, as we lose about half of all electricity generated in the U.S. to system losses. A redesigned distributed generation grid could dramatically reduce those losses.
The cost of this particular plan would be around $320 billion a year from 2020 to 2050, but the returns over the life of the transition would be substantially larger and would continue indefinitely. The savings would start at around $65 billion a year in the 2020s, increasing to over $700 billion a year in the 2040s. Around 1 million additional jobs would be created during the 30-year transition, with many of the largest gains being in the domestic construction and utilities sectors. While other approaches may offer greater or fewer costs or benefits, the important point is that the renewable energy transition can be a win-win proposition for our economy.
A: WADE POWELL | PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY
Scientists have been manipulating DNA for decades, but early genetic-manipulation techniques were slow, expensive and geared to individual species. Enter CRISPR — a fast, cheap and flexible way to make precise changes in any cell’s DNA.
CRISPR’s enormous promise has both scientists and investors aggressively seeking new therapeutic applications, including altering a gene within retinal cells to restore sight to patients with a rare cause of heritable blindness.
A more ambitious goal is to modify the “germ line,” the cells that give rise to sperm and egg, thereby creating genetic alterations that could be passed on to a patient’s children. The hope would be to eliminate inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Huntington’s disease. Edits in the human germ line must be made on in-vitro-fertilized human embryos. And that’s where serious concerns arise.
First, CRISPR technology is not yet safe enough for medical use in human embryos. In early attempts to perform CRISPR edits in an embryo, scientists based in China detected unanticipated changes at multiple sites in the genome, which might have caused birth defects or diseases if the embryo had been brought to term. Recent attempts in an American lab were more encouraging, but improved accuracy resulted from unexpected and poorly understood biochemical mechanisms.
And while some medical scientists argue that it’s morally wrong to withhold the cure to a genetic disease, the alteration of the human genome raises profound ethical questions. What if we used technology to select specific traits in offspring — height, skin color or intelligence? How would widespread genome editing affect the population genetics of our species in the future? If a sophisticated experimental technique like CRISPR is available only to the rich, could it exacerbate and entrench economic inequality at the biological level?
Issues such as these cry out for international consensus. For now, the laws of many Western European countries and the policies of American research agencies establish a moratorium on genetic manipulation of the human germ line. But a panel from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently issued a report exploring the way forward for human gene therapy. Inaction by society is not an option. It is crucial that the pace of policymaking match the inevitably rapid advancement of genome-editing technology.
A: JAY CORRIGAN | PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS
Slices of the economic pie are more lopsided than ever before. According to recent data, the richest 10 percent of American households earn just more than half of all U.S. income. That’s the highest fraction since the federal government started keeping these sorts of records 100 years ago. And the U.S. isn’t the only place where the gap between rich and poor is growing. During the last 40 years, the richest 10 percent gained ground in Canada, Germany and Japan.
So what explains this increase in income inequality across rich countries? Economists most often point to technological changes that have made the most talented workers ever more productive. As an example, consider that the only way to listen to professional musicians at the turn of the 20th century was to go to a live performance. The most talented performers played in the largest venues and, therefore, made more money than their less-talented peers, but the difference would have been relatively modest.
Today, most of us listen to recorded music. And because an iTunes download costs the same whether it’s recorded by the top artist in a genre or by someone less popular, the most-talented performers now capture a much larger share of our entertainment dollars. Thousands of musicians still are scratching out a living, but technology has increased the gap between the most-talented and the slightly less-talented. Something similar has happened in most industries.
To understand what, if anything, can be done to reduce income inequality, it helps to look back to the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when income inequality actually decreased. That's because the supply of highly skilled workers increased more rapidly than the demand for their services, keeping their incomes — and income inequality — in check. This increase in supply was due to an increase in college graduates and women entering the workforce. Unfortunately, both of those trends have leveled off since about 1980.
If there’s one area where there’s still low-hanging fruit, it’s immigration. Immigrants create about half of all successful startups, but we make it hard for highly skilled immigrants to live and work in the U.S. Increasing the cap on the number of visas issued to highly skilled immigrants each year — or removing the cap entirely — would increase the supply of top talent, reducing income inequality.
A: LAURIE FINKE | PROFESSOR OF WOMEN’S AND GENDER STUDIES
When teaching “The Politics of the Bathroom,” my students and I realized that nearly every social justice movement of the century has involved bathrooms. Jim Crow laws and apartheid dictated separate bathrooms for whites and non-whites. Women’s liberation also fueled debate over bathrooms. Feminists coined the term “potty parity” to protest inequalities in the distribution of restroom facilities (restrooms for female senators were not provided in the U.S. Senate until 1992), while opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment argued that its passage would spell an end to separate bathrooms for men and women. Disability activists fought to make bathrooms accessible for individuals with physical handicaps.
Today, nothing is more symbolic of transgender politics in the U.S. than bathrooms. For a transgender individual, every trip to the bathroom is accompanied by anxiety and dread, so much so that many simply avoid public restrooms altogether, often risking their health. If transgender individuals cannot use public facilities, they cannot participate fully in public life. They cannot be regular consumers — or citizens.
Public bathrooms both reflect and construct sexual dimorphism, our sense that nature produces bodies of only two kinds. Those supporting “bathroom bills” — the legislation of separate bathroom facilities for men and women in public buildings — see sex as fixed and immutable. For supporters of transgender rights, the biology of sex is not so cut and dried: Genes, anatomy and hormones do not always line up neatly on one side or the other of an absolute divide. The concept of “gender” attempts to recognize that life can’t be defined in simple either/or terms; it’s a more complex, messier project.
Ultimately, public restrooms create social anxieties because they are spaces in which the public and private collide in the most intimate ways. While the need to eliminate unites us all, the design and distribution of bathrooms carve space according to social hierarchies of gender, race, class and ability, making the toilet a historic symbol of public debate
A: ABBIE ERLER | ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
Disentangling the effects of gender on the 2016 election is a job that will keep political scientists busy for many years, yet there is little doubt that gender was a factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Even if we agree with those who argue that Clinton was a fundamentally flawed candidate, we must recognize that our assessments of her suitability are filtered through the lens of gender.
Will there be a woman president in my lifetime? I’m doubtful because I believe women are still struggling to be fully incorporated into politics as voters, candidates and officeholders. In my ideal political world, women voters would be appealed to not as mothers and wives, but as human beings. Women candidates would no longer face a “double bind” of needing to appear both tough enough to handle any crises the nation might face but not so tough that they violate gender stereotypes of how women should behave. And the voices of women officeholders would have just as much prominence in discussion of the budget and military affairs as on issues pertaining to children, education and women’s health.
Some may argue that my vision eliminates women as a political category, and I don’t deny that it does. This may even be desirable given the difficulties of finding a common representational interest shared by all women that isn’t rooted in the body and reproduction. When women have achieved full incorporation into political life, questions of whether or not a woman will ever be president will seem irrelevant in the face of more fundamental questions of justice and equality. Until women are fully incorporated into politics, having a woman president will do little to alter their political and social situation.
How close have scientists come to making time travel possible?
Jeffery A., Kumasi, Ghana
Should we, as a country, be concerned about the demise of labor unions?
Michael B., Montgomery, Alabama
Why do we glorify and obsess over people like the Kardashians, whose fame was gained though unethical means?
Julia B., Valencia, California
What should we be doing about the rise of automation?
Bradley B., Lake Forest, Illinois
Should there be restrictions on free speech?
Feliz B., Van Nuys, California
How did men become the dominant sex all those years ago?
Estrella B., Whittier, California
Could GMOs threaten biodiversity and what ramifications could that have?
Katelyn C., Elkins, Arizona
Does reverse racism exist?
Kenya C., Houston, Texas
Do you think not standing but instead kneeling for the national anthem is disrespecting the flag and veterans?
Amina E., Salt Lake City, Utah
Is there a way to make an experimental or traditionally "artsy" film that does well both critically and at the box office?
Hannah G., Acton, Massachusetts
Will animals ever stop being tested on for various makeup products?
Rebekkah L., Winooski, Vermont
Would a decrease in anti-union sentiment make our economy better?
Will M., Portland, Oregon
Why are so many Americans apathetic about politics?
Lena N., Waterville, Ohio
Was America ever the best country in the world?
Delia N., Indianapolis
With all of the upgrades in gun technology, should the second amendment still apply?
Wyatt S., Pacific Palisades, California
Why haven't we figured out a better way to argue worldwide disagreements that doesn't involve killing people?
Sarah T., Savannah, Georgia
Are some people naturally smarter than others?
Iris T., Seattle, Washington
Why do they sell hot dogs in packs of 10 but hot dog buns in packs of eight? Is it motivated by a desire for us to buy in bulk, or is there a simpler (or more likely) answer to this question?
Alfonso V., Tucson, Arizona
Does the world get louder by each passing moment?
Angela Y., Pacifica, California
Should the federal government infringe upon personal liberties in return for security?
Taehwan Y., San Diego, California
Are we experiencing the end of the two-party system as we know it?
Raniyan Z., Jackson Heights, New York
How effective is the Electoral College?
Spencer B., Bedford, New Hampshire
How can we break down the systematic racism of the judicial system? If we focus on the issue of police brutality, is that denying the proper amount of spotlight to mass incarceration? Or the crippling of the war on drugs on urban communities?
Lauren M., Charlotte, North Carolina
Are sports organizations an effective place to initiate or promote social movements?
Ammar S., San Jose, California
Are we repeating history?
Syou Nam T., Setagaya, Japan
Has the nature of U.S. politics changed forever or will America have the opportunity to return from this divisive period to a less polarized and less partisan state?
Olivia W., Arlington, Massachusetts
With political polarization on the rise can we see a comeback of moderates or will we end up with a second civil war?
Greta G., Spokane, Washington
Given the tumultuous state of the healthcare debate in America, what are the next steps forward? Is the nation best poised for a stable market, universal healthcare, or a public option?
Henry L., Greenville, South Carolina
Are there issues within American culture that contribute to the prevalence of white male mass shooters?
Sarah S., Palo Alto, California
Are we ready to commercially deploy artificial intelligence?
Nirvisha S., Portage, Michigan
If the U.S. were to legalize all drugs, would we see a decrease in drug use similar to Puerto Rico's?
Rebekah T., Lakeside Park, Kentucky
Does limiting birth control coverage save an appreciable amount of money?
Kara P., Corona Del Mar High School, California
Should it be the government's job to provide healthcare for its citizens?
Eric M., Avon, Connecticut
Why does it seem like Generation Z is so much more anxious than those older than them?
Katharine L., Manchester, Vermont
Is America actually home to more xenophobia and general belief that our culture is superior than is common in other countries?
Brittany A., Independence, Kentucky
Should cloning be considered ethical or unethical?
Alexis L., Mission, Texas
I've heard that 32 degrees Fahrenheit is both the melting and freezing point of pure (distilled) water (H20). If so, what exactly does water do if kept at exactly that point? What state would it be in?
Kiki C., Athens, Ohio
What is the process of mosquito digestion?
Abigail T., Austin, Texas
Will America ever love black people as much as they love black culture?
Danielle J., Carteret, New Jersey
Will gender equality ever be achieved? Is it a good thing that it is being talked about, or is it bad enough that is an issue in the first place?
Sharon K., Kenya
Is the rise of technology making us less empathic?
Sarah M., Boulder, Colorado
In the Atlantic Monthly, Bryan Caplan makes the case against encouraging everyone to go to college. How would you answer Mr. Caplan; that is, is college really a worthwhile choice for most people?
Joyce W., Sunrise, Florida
How will technological advancements influence human population growth?
Hannah L., Fairfax, California
What is human nature?
Sarah P., Pittsburgh
How does the language one was born into affect the way people think?
Oliver K., Los Angeles
How does Kenyon stand out regarding preparing PPEL students for their future aspirations?
Nathan W., Gates Mills, Ohio
Why are students and faculty forced into self-censorship on college campuses across the United States?
Eric J., Columbus, Ohio
Assuming such a candidate is politically capable and socially grounded, is America ready for a gay president?
Patrick S., Bay Village, Ohio
How will the presence of the African American change in the coming future?
Zion S., Louisville, Kentucky
Why is TV political satire so popular right now?
Gwyneth C., Clive, Iowa
Why is healthy food so difficult to provide for poorer communities?
Annika S., Minneapolis, Minnesota
Why does society view extroversion as the ideal and introversion as something needing to be fixed?
Kallen M., Adrian, Michigan
Why does the news only portray the violent and awful things that happen in our world rather than showing new innovations and positive aspects in it?
Lina L., Louisville, Kentucky
Will the United States government ever pay off its debt?
Aiden P., Rockaway, New Jersey
What will be the legal ramifications of recognizing gender as an spectrum for self-identification? How many genders can we recognize? Would misgendering be considered a crime? Should there be compelled speech forcing people to use the correct pronouns?
José P., Vancouver, Washington
Most people agree that discrimination based on race, sex or nationality is wrong, however, many people still, consciously or unconsciously, react to people based on these subjects. How do we prevent this in future generations?
Andrei S., North Ridgeville, Ohio
Is permaculture a viable option for large scale implementation? How would this impact the economy?
Sophia S., Minneapolis
Why hasn't the government released the cure for cancer to the public?
Mari C., Lansing, Illinois
If the meaning of life is to give life meaning, then doesn't that imply that life has an inherent meaning of ascribing meaning to it? And so if you ascribe meaning to life, how can your meaning coexist along with the meaning of giving life meaning? Would this invalidate any meaning via paradoxical logic? How could you escape this paradox while retaining a subjective meaning to life?
Anthony P., Mount Vernon, Ohio
The development of CRISPR will inevitably lead to designer babies. In an increasingly competitive world, how could we stay competitive against a nation of super-humans? How can we maintain our democratic values and system in the face of this monumental shift in what it means to be a human being?
Matthew W., Old Greenwich, Connecticut
Could a universal basic income ever be feasible in the United States?
Alex V., Grand Rapids, Michigan
Can something infinite exist in a finite universe?
Maria S., Eaton, Ohio
How has the development of technology affected today's youth education-wise?
Christopher F., Dallas, Texas
Why does your brain store people's faces that you see when you are out even though you don't know who they are?
Briana G., Morganton, North Carolina
Will artificial intelligence disrupt the labor market and cause widespread unemployment?
Mahesh A., South Berwick, Maine
Why are people so protective over their gun rights?
Kimberly L., Delaware, Ohio
What causes different allergies? Are allergies curable?
Mari N., Honolulu, Hawaii
Are human inherently evil?
Snigdha S., Hollywood, Florida
Will race ever stop being an issue in America?
Sean L., El Segundo, California
In light of the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, what short-term and long-term effects might we see on women's rights?
Gabriella B., Glen Rock, New Jersey
Why are conspiracy theorists so determined to falsify the achievements of NASA, specifically the moon landing?
Gabriella B., Glen Rock, New Jersey
How can cyclical poverty in the United States be eliminated?
Jona E., Evanston, Illinois
What can be done to cause the representatives and senators to work together politely and civilly to enact legislation that will address the many important problems that our country faces?
Caroline J., North Hampton, New Hampshire
How is growing anti-intellectual sentiment in the U.S. hurting the economy?
Elijah S., Boulder, Colorado
Why do so many religions exist? Which is the true religion, and what does this mean for us in this life and after?
Nubia S., Chicago
Will our privacy continue to be invaded until it ceases to exist?
Gretchen W., Henderson, Nevada
Is factory farming the leading cause of global warning? If so, what kind of impact would there be if every human switched to a vegan diet?
Yuliana V., Dallas, Texas
What will the average human look like in 100 years?
Dashiell C., Nyack, New York
A: SEAN DECATUR | President of Kenyon College
The free exchange of ideas is central to the values of a liberal arts education: Colleges and universities should be places where ideas are contested and challenged, not suppressed or shut out. At Kenyon, our faculty has endorsed this concept with a resolution on the value and importance of free expression, emphasizing that we must be open to hearing ideas that are inconsistent with shared institutional values.
But how do colleges resolve the tension between their institutional charge to promote freedom of speech and expression on the one hand, and to establish a site of civil discourse on the other?
There are two components to consider. One is that speech or expression may be permitted, but that does not mean that it comes without consequences. Freedom of speech is not freedom from rebuke. In fact, if one follows the “marketplace of ideas” concept of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the rebuke is essential, since it is in the public challenge and battle over speech that our cultural norms of civility get established.
The other component is that institutions can and must set ground rules to ensure that free speech occurs within some bounds of acceptable civil discourse. Do you have the right to protest on campus? Yes, but the institution has the right to set the rules to make sure that all voices can be heard.
Today’s political climate dictates that the tension between free speech and civil discourse will continue in national conversation, and undoubtedly college campuses will continue to be flash points in these discussions. If we think of society as a marketplace of ideas, college campuses are the sites of market disruption — where new ideas challenge (and at times overthrow) old ones, new paradigms get established, and the battles over defining civility get waged.
Yes, let’s be unafraid to exchange ideas freely on campus. But when speech or actions disrupt accepted notions of civility, let’s also be unafraid to call attention to that with clear rebuke or rejection. This tension between civility and free speech will lead the way to progress.
A: GLENN MCNAIR | Professor of History
The simple, but disappointing, answer is that we cannot break down systemic racism within the judicial system until we have made significant inroads in eroding white supremacy itself. White supremacy is defined as an ideology based on the belief that whites are superior to other races and is manifested through systems that maintain whites in superior positions.
The most cutting-edge research on implicit bias, including research conducted by Harvard’s Project Implicit, confirms that most Americans associate Blacks with crime and violence. Until fairly recently, these beliefs were held consciously and articulated publicly. Today, these beliefs are largely unconscious, but nevertheless play a significant role in decision-making processes. Accordingly, when actors within the criminal justice system make decisions, they act on these biases — even if they are not aware of them.
Bias in the criminal justice system begins with police officers; they decide who to stop and frisk or to arrest. Study after study demonstrates that police officers bring Blacks into the system with far greater frequency than whites. The process continues with prosecutors deciding whether to charge those arrested, take them to trial, or urge them to enter guilty pleas. Again, fewer whites are charged, compelled to enter guilty pleas, or sent to trial. At conviction, judges decide punishments. Blacks routinely receive harsher punishments than whites, up to and including the death penalty. Before judges can hand down sentences, juries must determine guilt or innocence. Juries convict black defendants at higher rates than white defendants.
A seemingly straightforward way of handling this problem of discretion is to eliminate it by crafting strict guidelines about what to do at each stage of the process. This has been tried since the 1970s and has failed, or has produced horrific unintended consequences. For example, mandatory-minimum sentencing was designed to ensure that all criminals convicted of particular crimes would receive similar punishments. That reform is responsible for today’s mass incarceration crisis.
In sum, we cannot make progress within the criminal justice system until we deal with white supremacy in our society as a whole. And the first step in that process is acknowledging that it is a problem, something we have been loathe to do.
Glenn McNair is a professor of history at Kenyon and former police officer and special agent within the U.S. Treasury Department.
A: TOM GIBLIN | Associate Professor of Physics
The good news is that physicists have developed complete, tested and verified models of time travel that perfectly explain how objects (including humans!) can, and do, travel through time. The bad news is that it’s the ultimate one-way street. We constantly are traveling through time, but our velocity in that direction is, with all the unfortunate consequences, unstoppable.
The theories of special and general relativity fully explain the rich physics of how to manipulate the rate at which clocks can tick due to large relative velocities and/or different altitudes — not to mention the even more significant effects of strong gravitational fields or near-light speed travel. It’s unavoidable to draw the analogy between these models and humans’ perception of how quickly time seems to pass; an hour in lecture can seem like a minute or a day depending on your frame of mind.
Understanding time travel, at least in this sense, is more than an academic exercise. The observable consequences of relativity are relevant in many of the processes that we take for granted. For instance, not a day goes by that I don’t rely on my GPS to tell me how long it will take for me to get home. This technology would be useless without a careful understanding of why the clocks on the GPS satellites tick at a (relative) different rate to those we have in our phones.
The great mystery, however, is not the fact that we travel through time in one direction, but rather why we travel in one direction. Macroscopic physics — thermodynamics, to be exact — dictates the rules that compel us forward, and forbid us to travel backwards, through time. On the other hand, microscopic physics has (almost) nothing to say about the choice of early versus late or young versus old. All microscopic laws of physics are time-reversal symmetric, meaning that these laws don’t care if time goes forward or backward. The origin of the arrow of time, the principle that dictates that we bleed after we’re cut, is an open question in physics.
In short, we’re great at time travel; we know a lot about how time works and have harnessed its power in multiple ways. The limitations of this model that get us down, but these same limitations help our GPS get us to where we need to go.
A: GEORGE GOLDMAN '20 | History Major from Boston
This question reminds me of a history class I took called “Modern History of the Middle East.” In the class, we learned about the recent wave of protests and revolutions (the Arab Spring) that took place from 2010 to 2012 throughout the Middle East in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. We discussed how protests often happen in cycles; in other words, they come about as a part of a larger historical pattern in which revolts of collective action against the government rise, fall, and make way for the next cycle to continue the trend.
For instance, the Young Turks Revolution of 1908, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, and the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 each were a part of a distinct protest cycle in which the people rose up against the government. However, history did not completely repeat itself in each case. The methods and eventual outcomes of the protests all were very different.
American writer Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” After taking “History of the Modern Middle East,” I learned how the Arab Spring protests were not a complete repeat of history, but instead a sort of rhyme with history. For sure, ideas, goals and traditions continued from one protest cycle to the next, but the kinds of people protesting and the results of the protests were often very different. As a history major myself, I have learned that your question is one that has kept many a historian busy.
A: KATHERINE ELKINS | Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities
JON CHUN | Visiting Instructor of Humanities, Affiliated Scholar in Scientific Computing
Lee Sedol, the 18-time world Go champion, slouched on his stool. The supreme confidence he evinced before the tournament had vanished after his second defeat by AlphaGo, the first computer to defeat a top-ranked human.
When IBM Deep Blue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, The New York Times reported it would take 100 years before a computer could defeat a human Go master. Go is a game vastly more complex than chess, which means even computers must rely on heuristic shortcuts that mimic human intuition. At the start of Sodol’s match against AlphaGo, most experts thought this AI milestone was still five to 10 years away.
These astonishing advances have led to a global arms race in AI. Companies worldwide are in intense competition to acquire top AI talent. Last year, China announced a multibillion dollar initiative to become the world leader in AI, and recently, Vladimir Putin proclaimed, “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
At this point you may be wondering whether you should be working single-mindedly on developing your AI skills. But while AI experts are developing smarter AI applications for all of us — from driverless cars to personal assistants — fewer have taken up the broader challenge to ensure we don’t become, in Thoreau’s words, “the tools of our tools.”
Indeed, Artificial Intelligence may restructure society in ways we are only beginning to imagine. What we need now are humanists conversant in AI who can critique and shape that future. AI forces us to ask questions about what it means to be human. Answering these questions will, in the end, be more important than AI milestones like AlphaGo. The only way to answer these questions is to develop an understanding of the world that is both broad and deep, since these questions cannot be answered by any single discipline or major.
Even experts are poor at forecasting the future of AI. No one in 1997 could have predicted the advances in big data, computational power, and algorithms that are making AI increasingly powerful and inexpensive. How, then, can we predict what AI will look like 20 years from now? While we can’t predict the future, the rapid and revolutionary changes AI brings compels us to continue putting the human at the center of our technological world. Whatever we do, we can’t stop asking the big questions.
A: KATHERINE ELKINS | Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities
JON CHUN | Visiting Instructor of Humanities, Affiliated Scholar in Scientific Computing
For most of human history, automation has dramatically increased our material comfort, wealth and well-being, freeing humans from the “3 Ds” of “dull, dirty and dangerous” work while providing new and more stimulating work opportunities. The majority of us believe our jobs will remain immune, and that automation will augment rather than replace human labor.
But recently, anxiety about automation has increased. Automation is suspected of playing a role in the stagnant wage growth and underemployment that has plagued developed economies for the past half century. Artificial Intelligence also is demonstrating the potential to automate almost every human activity.
The newest wave of AI-powered automation is less about automating simple physical labor and more about empowering automation with human-like perception, communication and cognition. Studies have found that up to half of existing jobs are at risk for automation within two decades, and it’s possible AI will outperform humans in all work tasks within 45 years.
Still, some “dull and dirty” jobs pose real challenges to automation. Ironically, AI turns out to be better at manipulating abstract symbols, exploring innovative designs, and sensing human emotions than cleaning toilets. Imagine a future dystopia in which we clean toilets while AI writes symphonies, serializes TV shows and crunches numbers to make life’s important decisions.
What can we do as a society if many of us cannot compete with automation for traditional jobs and new job creation fails to keep pace? Small scale experiments in Universal Basic Income are testing it as a viable alternative to a work-based economy. Taxing robots in proportion to the human labor they replace may preserve government revenue and slow its adoption. Congress has banned self-driving trucks, and human oversight is mandated for data-driven criminal sentencing and medical diagnosis.
Still, there remains the question as to how individuals will reimagine their purpose and identity without work. Automation may force us to rethink the fundamental premises of our economy, laws and ethics as it accelerates wealth concentration, creates vast power imbalances and swiftly outmaneuvers any regulations designed to control it.
We all need to ask and answer these big questions to ensure that an automated world is still one we wish to inhabit. Only in doing so can we determine how to maintain a humanist world in the face of an increasing post-humanist onslaught.
A: CHRIS PALUDI ’20 | Political Science Major from Los Angeles
just completed a final exam on a similar question in my “International Relations” class, where we talked extensively about this issue. Though we didn’t achieve world peace in a semester, the class did shed some light on why the largest nations in the world have enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity after World War II, but why the world is, in some ways, a much less stable place than it was 20 years ago.
The world is a dangerous place, and countries’ first priority in their international relations is their own security. With no one to protect them, they have to protect themselves, and to do so, they arm themselves. If everyone is arming themselves, there is no way to really know whether or not someone with the ability to hurt you is simply protecting themselves or is preparing to attack. The only way to be safe is to make sure you’re the strongest one around. If you’re thinking, “That sounds like an arms race,” well, you’d be right. That’s why most countries agree on rules that help everybody feel safer.
Ever since World War II, the U.S. has been a “global policeman” that enforces these rules. To prevent the insecurity that makes the international system so dangerous, the U.S. makes it clear that we're ready to use our power to stand up for our allies if they're attacked. Since the 1940s, America has accumulated binding promises to protect almost 70 countries across the globe, from NATO nations to Japan and South Korea. And since the U.S. is not a country others have wanted to mess with, things have been pretty peaceful from a historical perspective.
The world also has a neighborhood watch in the United Nations, which helps countries talk things out as much as possible. Countries also trade more today than ever before, and are pretty interdependent in ways that have made peace and prosperity not only possible but probable. That wasn’t something you could count on for most of history. And when that situation gets more dicey, like today, countries flex their muscles in nonviolent ways to maintain the status quo. We’ve found that smart, strong sanctions and even public pressure can often prove really useful to changing behaviors.
Unfortunately, humans haven’t figured out how to simply negotiate our way out of every disagreement. We may never will. Acknowledging this ugly reality, we should all be more empathetic and seek to understand and respect other states and other cultures. Doing so may help prevent misunderstandings and adversarial attitudes that lead to violence where it need not arise.