UNE President’s Forum features lively, thoughtful debate about artificial intelligence

UNE President's Forum Fall 2023

A lively and thoughtful conversation about artificial intelligence took place at the University of New England’s President’s Forum on Monday, Nov. 14, featuring two experts on the subject who have widely different opinions about AI’s benefits.

The forum, titled “AI: The End of the World or the Dawn of a New Age?” drew a large crowd of UNE students, faculty, and other community members to the Harold Alfond Forum on Monday. The President’s Forum is a staple event of UNE’s commitment to the marketplace of ideas, a pillar of the University’s mission to foster healthy debate to better the community.

The two speakers, James Miller, J.D., Ph.D., economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and David Weinberger, Ph.D., professor at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, debated whether AI poses existential threats to humanity or if it will usher in a new era of efficiency and problem-solving.

“I think AI is either going to kill us all or bring us to utopia beyond anything we could imagine,” Miller said during the forum. “Right now, we're still smarter than AI, but probably we won’t be in maybe two, certainly 10 years. So, we’re going to have something much smarter than us and we won’t be able to control it, even if we try to.”

Weinberger said he takes the “doom predictions” seriously, but he also worries it “takes our eyes off some really important issues” with AI, especially as the technology is already being used in cell phones, weather forecasts, and other parts of everyday life.

“These systems work because they have so much data, have so many patterns, and they can be so dense and hard to understand that we surrender the demand to understand knowledge,” Weinberger said. “We use it and we don't know how it works. That's a huge surrender in Western history. But those are issues that get washed over by the doom question, which, obviously, is an important one.”

The speakers also took questions from UNE students, many of whom wanted to know about how AI should be used in the higher education system in the present, not just in the future.

“Certainly, right now we're, we're all struggling with how we handle Chat GPT and essay writing,” Miller said, noting that he believes AI will eventually erode the need to learn writing skills in the same way students now use calculators to solve complex math equations.

But Weinberger believes AI can enhance certain professions, like health care.

“In the medical field, we already have, and increasingly we will have, diagnostic tools that do a better job than we do now in ways that we don't understand,” he said. “And as we get used to this, as we are confronted by it, we’re going to need human beings to help us decide whether we trust, or not trust, the AI that we’re using, especially when it’s making an important decision.”

UNE President James Herbert said Monday’s forum “exemplifies what we are trying to do with this series” by contributing differing but civil opinions to the conversation from both sides of the issue.

“We live in hyper-polarized times,” Herbert said. “Partisan 24-hour cable news channels often prioritize political propaganda over factual reporting and thoughtful analysis. Social media algorithms feed us information from like-minded thinkers while insulating us from those who think differently, thereby reinforcing our existing biases. At UNE, we are committed to reversing this trend. We have planted a flag around the importance of fostering robust discourse on important topics, and doing so from a perspective of intellectual humility, curiosity, and civility.”

Watch the full forum