Faculty find human meaning in age of robots at Yale Explores in New York

Catharine Bond Hill ’85 Ph.D., President Peter Salovey, Margaret Warner ’71, Shelly Kagan, Laurie Santos, and Brian Scassellati
Left to right: Catharine Bond Hill ’85 Ph.D., President Peter Salovey, Margaret Warner ’71, Shelly Kagan, Laurie Santos, and Brian Scassellati. (Photo credit: Tony Fiorini)

How will advances in artificial intelligence — from smart speakers to personal robots — affect our relationships, emotional well-being, and even our identities as humans? Three Yale professors tackled this and other questions in front of 1,000 alumni, parents, and friends at Lincoln Center on Oct. 11. The event, “Being Human in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” was the fourth in the Yale Explores series, following earlier programs in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

Professors Shelly Kagan, Laurie Santos, and Brian Scassellati joined in a conversation moderated by Margaret Warner ’71, senior fellow of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former chief global affairs correspondent of PBS NewsHour. The panelists drew on their research in philosophy, psychology, and computer science to discuss the wide-ranging implications of AI. 

In closing remarks, President Peter Salovey highlighted Yale’s role in creating knowledge to solve critical challenges facing the world.

Co-sponsored by the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA), the Yale Club of New York, Yale.nyc, and numerous alumni shared interest groups, the event began with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the lobby overlooking Lincoln Center plaza. Then guests moved to David Geffen Hall, where Low Strung, Yale’s all-cello rock ensemble, kicked off the program with classical renditions of favorite rock hits. After the finale of “Living on a Prayer,” Catharine “Cappy” Bond Hill ’85 Ph.D., senior trustee of the Yale Board of Trustees, introduced the panel.

Low Strung, Yale’s all-cello rock ensemble, on stage at Yale Explores in NYC.
Low Strung, Yale’s all-cello rock ensemble. (Photo credit: Tony Fiorini)

Brian Scassellati, professor of computer science and of mechanical engineering and materials science, is developing robots that teach people languages and help children with autism learn social skills. Yet, the panelists agreed, AI can blur the distinctions between humans and non-humans, raising questions about whether robots can be social partners and what obligations humans have to the machines they create.

If robots can be used to teach skills, that is all good,” Shelly Kagan, the Clark Professor of Philosophy, said. “But if we’re asking ‘Can a robot be a friend?’ we’ve crossed into another domain.”

That it is why studying the effects of rapidly changing technology from many different angles is so important, the panelists agreed. “We need to have this understanding that stretches beyond computer science, beyond mechanical engineering,” Scassellati said.

As computers outperform humans in a variety of tasks, humans may have to search for their sense of self-worth and identity in new areas, said the professors.

Professor of psychology Laurie Santos described how AlphaGo, a computer program developed to play the strategy board game Go, recently triumphed over a world-champion human player. “[The game] was something we thought was uniquely human and a hallmark of human cognition,” said Santos, “and a computer is better at it.”

Looking beyond board games, Kagan noted that many people find meaning in what they do for a living. “When robots can do that [work] better, the zone for finding meaning shrinks,” Kagan said. “Does this threaten our sense of ourselves as people who can have meaningful lives?”

A graduate student in the Yale Social Robotics Lab has developed a robot that can recognize itself in a mirror. “Living in the age of intelligent machines is really changing how we see ourselves,” Scassellati said. Humans, he suggested, will have to develop new ways of understanding ourselves and what makes life meaningful.

Animal research has long prompted questions about what it means to be human, said Santos, who is director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory and Canine Cognition Center. She pointed to primatologist Jane Goodall who observed chimpanzees using tools — long considered a human-specific skill.  

We continually question what it means to be human,” Santos said. As artificial intelligence advances, she added, “that redefining is the kind of thing we have to reckon with in the technology world.”

Following the panel, Salovey drew from his research on emotional intelligence to imagine the next frontier in AI. Robots that can recognize facial expressions and understand body language could help care for people with mental and physical illnesses or perform dangerous work, said the President. The implications of such technology deserves careful study, he said: That is why interdisciplinary research is so crucial.

The complexities of developing intelligent machines and understanding the impact of artificial intelligence on society cannot be addressed by one discipline — by one Yale department or by one Yale school,” Salovey said. “Leaders in engineering, sciences, social and behavioral science, humanities, and arts are needed. This is where Yale can play a vital role.”

The evening ended with another reception. “Engagement zones” set up with each faculty member made it possible to continue the evening’s discussions.

Future Yale Explores events are planned for San Francisco and Los Angeles in the spring. To learn more and register for future events, visit the Yale Explores website.

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