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Innovations in AI and Higher Education

Innovations in AI and Higher Education

From the future of higher education to regulating artificial intelligence (AI), Reid Hoffman and Nicholas Dirks had a wide-ranging discussion during the first installment of the Authors at the Academy series.

Published April 12, 2024

By Nick Fetty

It was nearly a full house when authors Nicholas Dirks and Reid Hoffman discussed their respective books during an event at The New York Academy of Sciences on March 27, 2024.

Hoffman, who co-founded LinkedIn as well as Inflection AI and currently serves as a partner at Greylock, discussed his book Impromptu: Amplifying Our Humanity Through AI. Dirks, who spent a career in academia before becoming President and CEO of the Academy, focused on his recently published book City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University. Their discussion, the first installment in the Authors at the Academy series, was largely centered on artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will impact education, business and creativity moving forward.

The Role of Philosophy

The talk kicked off with the duo joking about the century-old rivalry between the University of California-Berkeley, where Dirks serves on the faculty and formerly served as chancellor, and Stanford University, where Hoffman earned his undergraduate degree in symbolic systems and currently serves on the board for the university’s Institute for Human-Centered AI. From Stanford, Hoffman went to Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar to study philosophy. He began by discussing the role that his background in philosophy has played throughout his career.

“One of my conclusions about artificial intelligence back in the day, which is by the way still true, is that we don’t really understand what thinking is,” said Hoffman, who also serves on the Board of Governors for the Academy. “I thought maybe philosophers understand what thinking is, they’ve been at it a little longer, so that’s part of the reason I went to Oxford to study philosophy. It was extremely helpful in sharpening my mind toolset.”

Public Intellectual Discourse

He encouraged entrepreneurs to think about the theory of human nature in the work they’re doing. He said it’s important to think about what they want for the future, how to get there, and then to articulate that with precision. Another advantage of a philosophical focus is that it can strengthen public intellectual discourse, both nationally and globally, according to Hoffman.

“It’s [focused on] who are we and who do we want to be as individuals and as a society,” said Hoffman.

Early in his career, Hoffman concluded that working as a software entrepreneur would be the most effective way he could contribute to the public intellectual conversation. He dedicated a chapter in his book to “Public Intellectuals” and said that the best way to elevate humanity is through enlightened discourse and education, which was the focus of a separate chapter in his book.

Rethinking Networks in Academia

The topic of education was an opportunity for Hoffman to turn the tables and ask Dirks about his book. Hoffman asked Dirks how institutions of higher education need to think about themselves as nodes of networks and how they might reinvent themselves to be less siloed.

Dirks mentioned how throughout his life he’s experienced various campus structures and cultures from private liberal arts institutions like Wesleyan University, where Dirks earned his undergraduate degree, and STEM-focused research universities like Cal Tech to private universities in urban centers (University of Chicago, Columbia University) and public, state universities (University of Michigan, University of California-Berkeley).

While on the faculty at Cal Tech, Dirks recalled he was encouraged to attend roundtables where faculty from different disciplines would come together to discuss their research. He remembered hearing from prominent academics such as Max Delbrück, Richard Feynman, and Murray Gell-Mann. Dirks, with a smile, pointed out the meeting location for these roundtables was featured in the 1984 film Beverly Hills Cop.

An Emphasis on Collaboration in Higher Education

Dirks said that he thinks the collaborative culture at Cal Tech enabled these academics to achieve a distinctive kind of greatness.

“I began to see this is kind of interesting. It’s very different from the way I’ve been trained, and indeed anyone who has been trained in a PhD program,” said Dirks, adding that he often thinks about a quote from a colleague at Columbia who said, “you’re trained to learn more and more about less and less.”

Dirks said that the problem with this model is that the incentive structures and networks of one’s life at the university are largely organized around disciplines and individual departments. As Dirks rose through the ranks from faculty to administration (both as a dean at Columbia and as chancellor at Berkeley), he began gaining a bigger picture view of the entire university and how all the individual units can fit together. Additionally, Dirks challenged academic institutions to work more collaboratively with the off-campus world.

“A Combination of Competition and Cooperation”  

Dirks then asked Hoffman how networks operate within the context of artificial intelligence and Silicon Valley. Hoffman described the network within the Valley as “an intense learning machine.”

“It’s a combination of competition and cooperation that is kind of a fierce generator of not just companies and products, but ideas about how to do startups, ideas about how to scale them, ideas of which technology is going to make a difference, ideas about which things allow you to build a large-scale company, ideas about business models,” said Hoffman.

During a recent talk with business students at Columbia University, Hoffman said he was asked about the kinds of jobs the students should pursue upon graduation. His advice was that instead of pinpointing specific companies, jobseekers should choose “networks of vibrant industries.” Instead of striving for a specific job title, they should instead focus on finding a network that inspires ingenuity.

“Being a disciplinarian within a scholarly, or in some case scholastic, discipline is less important than [thinking about] which networks of tools and ideas are best for solving this particular problem and this particular thing in the world,” said Hoffman. “That’s the thing you should really be focused on.”

The Role of Language in Artificial Intelligence

Much of Hoffman’s book includes exchanges between him and ChatGPT-4, an example of a large language model (LLM). Dirks points out that Hoffman uses GPT-4 not just an example, but as an interlocutor throughout the book. By the end of the book, Dirks observed that the system had grown because of Hoffman’s inputs.

In the future, Hoffman said he sees LLMs being applied to a diverse array of industries. He used the example of the steel industry, in areas like sales, marketing, communications, financial analysis, and management.

“LLMs are going to have a transformative impact on steel manufacturing, and not necessarily because they’re going to invent new steel manufacturing processes, but [even then] that’s not beyond the pale. It’s still possible,” Hoffman said.

AI Understanding What Is Human

Hoffman said part of the reason he articulates the positives of AI is because he views the general discourse as so negative. One example of a positive application of AI would be having a medical assistant on smartphones and other devices, which can improve medical access in areas where it may be limited. He pointed out that AI can also be programmed as a tutor to teach “any subject to any age.”

“[AI] is the most creative thing we’ve done that also seems to have potential autonomy and agency and so forth, and that causes a bunch of very good philosophical questions, very good risk questions,” said Hoffman. “But part of the reason I articulate this so positively is because…[of] the possibility of making things enormously better for humanity.” 

Hoffman compared the societal acceptance of AI to automobiles more than a century ago. At the outset, automobiles didn’t have many regulations, but as they grew in scale, laws around seatbelts, speed limits, and driver’s licenses were established. Similarly, he pointed to weavers who were initially wary of the loom before understanding its utility to their work and the resulting benefit to broader society.

“AI can be part of the solution,” said Hoffman. “What are the specific worries in navigation toward the good things and what are the ways that we can navigate that in good ways. That’s the right place for a critical dialogue to happen.”

Regulation of AI

Hoffman said because of the speedy rate of development of new AI technologies, it can make effective regulation difficult. He said it can be helpful to pinpoint the two or three most important risks to focus on during the navigation process, and if feasible to fix those issues down the road.

Carbon emissions from automobiles was an example Hoffman used, pointing out that emissions weren’t necessarily on the minds of engineers and scientists when the automobile was being developed, but once research started pointing to the detrimental environmental impacts of carbon in the atmosphere, governments and companies took action to regulate and reduce emissions.

“[While] technology can help to create a problem, technologies can also help solve those problems,” Hoffman said. “We won’t know they’re problems until we’re into them and obviously we adjust as we know them.”

Hoffman is currently working on another book about AI and was invited to return to the Academy to discuss it once published.

For on-demand video access to the full event, click here.

Register today if you’d like to attend these upcoming events in the Authors at the Academy series:

Academy President Brings AI Expertise to Saudi Arabia Conference

Nicholas Dirks focused on large language models, such as ChatGPT, and the importance of context and culture when developing these technologies.

Published March 13, 2024

By Nick Fetty

Nicholas Dirks, President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences, recently presented at what has been dubbed “the world’s most attended tech event.”

Dirks gave a lecture titled “The Social Life of AI” to LEAP conference attendees at the Riyadh Exhibition and Convention Center in Saudi Arabia’s capital city. His presentation was part of DeepFest, a section of the LEAP event focused specifically on artificial intelligence (AI), which featured more than 150 speakers and nearly 50,000 attendees.

Dirks’ presentation covered a range of AI topics from the origins of human-machine interaction during the industrial revolution to the social and cultural impacts AI will have as the technology continues to develop.

“I seek here not just to talk about benefits and dangers, nor the larger debate between techno optimists and those who worry about threats about extinction, but about how AI will impact our everyday lives in ways that will be about far more than the more obvious importance of technology in our economic and political worlds,” said Dirks.

Dirks focused on large language models, such as ChatGPT or autocomplete, which use machine learning to “predict and generate plausible language.” When developing these models, Dirks emphasized the importance of context and culture, both of which can greatly impact how AI is programmed to generate language.

“Humans live in webs that are particular to cultural and historical experience, some shared across the entire human race, others deeply specific to smaller groups and contexts,” said Dirks. “Language is thus critical, but so is the cultural context within which any language is developed, learned, and deployed.”

Creating Social Meaning

Without proper regulations and best practice guidelines, AI might change cultural contexts in negative ways, rendering it a problematic player in the symbolic game of creating social meaning. This can lead to greater autonomy for machines, and less for humans, causing people to have more faith in machines than in humans. Within just the past couple of decades, issues caused by changes in technology are being brought to the forefront, such as the loss of jobs due to automation, mental health concerns spurred on by social media algorithms, and the dissemination of misinformation and disinformation through deepfakes and other maliciously manipulated content.

To avoid these pitfalls, Dirks says experts from various disciplines, including humanists, social scientists, psychologists, and philosophers, must be brought to the table in the research and development of AI technologies. These technologies should be frontloaded with socially positive applications, such as relevant and inexpensive educational opportunities, frictionless access to financial and other transactions, entitlements, and more.

While many serious considerations must be factored into the development of AI to avoid negative outcomes, Dirks ended his presentation with an optimistic look at the positive potential of AI moving forward.

“The social life of AI need not destroy or replace our own social lives as human beings. With deliberate, cross-sectoral, and multidisciplinary engagement – we can ensure that AI augments our lives, neither replacing nor subordinating us, and that the benefits of AI are shared by all,” he said.

Learn more about The New York Academy of Sciences’ efforts into AI such as the Artificial Intelligence and Society Fellowship as well as the Tata Series on AI & Society.

Academy President’s New Book Explores Contemporary Challenges in Higher Education

The book cover for City of Intellect.

The book details Nicholas B. Dirks’ years in leadership roles at Columbia and Berkeley during an era of vast changes in the culture of academia.

Published February 01, 2024

By Nick Fetty

Nicholas B. Dirks, President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences, reflects on the challenges he encountered and the lessons he learned during his long career in university leadership, from being chair of the Anthropology department at Columbia, to his time as EVP and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences also at Columbia, and then as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, in a newly published book.

The book cover for City of Intellect.

City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University was released in the United States by Cambridge University Press on Feb. 1. The book, described as “part autobiography, part practical manifesto,” details Dirks’ years in leadership roles at Columbia and Berkeley during an era of vast changes in the culture of academia.

Assessing Challenges in Higher Education

A distinguished historian and anthropologist and an accomplished academic administrator, Dirks offers a frank assessment of some of the challenges facing higher education. In a recent TIME Ideas column, Dirks wrote “There are far too many examples of the failure of universities over the past decade to defend academic freedom when it goes against conventional wisdom on campus.” The attempted canceling of provocative guest speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Bill Maher, and Ann Coulter are several examples that occurred during Dirks’ stint as the leader of the Berkeley campus.

While he acknowledges the need for change at the institutional level, however, he has also expressed concerns about external forces and attacks on the university that are exerting increasing pressure “[on] the overall climate for faculty governance, for academic freedom and for fundamental issues that…are definitely under…threat right at the moment.” 

Reinventing Universities

In addition to leading The New York Academy of Sciences, a position he has held since 2020, Dirks continues to serve as a professor of history in the Graduate School at UC Berkeley and is the Franz Boas Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Columbia.  Dirks has published major works on the history of the state in early modern South Asia, the colonial history of the caste system, the significance of the Indian empire for modern Britain, on social and cultural theory, and on debates in historiography.  He has been a lifelong advocate of the liberal arts, interdisciplinary studies, and India.  In the face of multiple challenges and changes, however, Dirks asserts that universities must “reinvent themselves” to remain relevant.

“[W]e also need to really rethink some of the legitimate concerns people have about how we [in higher education] conduct ourselves at every level—cost, administrative bloat, disciplinary silos, relevance, enacting academic freedom and free speech—across the board,” Dirks said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “All of those things have to be done in order to regain [public] trust.”

And yet, his new book extends remarks he made some years ago, that “The time has come to defend the university vigorously, even as we insist on seeking to open it up further: to new ideas, to even more vigorous debate, to more students who have never had the opportunity for advanced education, to engagement with the world, and to the public more generally for whom the idea that college is a public good needs stressing and demonstrating today more than ever.”

Advancing Science for the Public Good into 2050

Researchers have a discussion while sitting at a computer.

By Nicholas B. Dirks

My journey leading the New York Academy of Sciences roughly coincides with the global calamity of SARS-CoV-2. As I reflect on my two-year anniversary, I cannot help but consider how much we have depended on scientists for the development of vaccines and therapeutics. Even though we are still experiencing the long tail of the pandemic, we are beginning to feel the worst may be behind us. One consequence is that we can more fully turn our attention to other crises, especially the very real dangers of climate change.

The Academy convenes experts for the exchange of scientific knowledge. Photo: Roger Torda

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic was remarkable, but there were shortfalls, too. One lesson was the importance of preparation, and it is to improve scientific preparation for the next global crisis—no matter what it might be—that we are making great strides with the International Science Reserve. It’s an ambitious program to pre-position resources that scientists will need—and to ready scientists themselves—to conduct research and find evidence-based solutions to global emergencies.

That’s a big part of our mission, along with improving science literacy, promoting interdisciplinary and innovative science, and supporting the training of new generations of scientists. While the Academy is 200 years old, as we head toward the mid-21st century we are fulfilling our mission in new, forward-looking ways. Let me provide some updates, and ask for your continued support for our critically-important work.

The International Science Reserve

We have just completed our first readiness exercise for the International Science Reserve (ISR). Scientists in our ISR Member Network—which stands a thousand strong, with representation from 90 countries—submitted research proposals in response to simulated wildfire emergencies in the U.S., Greece, and Indonesia. We are analyzing the proposals to learn:

  • What data, data-gathering resources, equipment, facilities, and personnel are needed to support scientists in crisis response;
  • What resources transcend specific types of crises and thus can be put in place now;
  • What systems for resource matching and the mobilization of scientists should be in place for quick responses to global emergencies.
The Academy supports early-career scientists through a variety of programs, including the Interstellar Initiative.

Early-Career Science

We are working on the ISR with IBM, UL, Google, Pfizer and other partners. But we need your support to run additional readiness exercises, and to use our findings in building an operations plan. The goal is nothing less than to maximize the power of science to save lives, livelihoods, and the environment.

The Academy is helping young scientists at the most critical stage of their careers, as they transition from graduate school toward success in professional research.

K-12 STEM

The Academy works with younger scientists too. We nurture early interest in science among ever more diverse groups of young people. With the support of EnCorps, for example, we’re placing scientists in in classrooms across New York City’s five boroughs. In a partnership with the Clifford Chance law firm and Ericcson, we’ve enrolled more than 500 students in Rwanda and Oman in STEM innovation challenges. We are working to diversify and expand STEM education in scores of countries around the world, including with a new program in Colombia.

Mentorship

We are helping scientists give back, across all levels of education. Our Mentors Program places experienced scientists with young people in classrooms and alongside student teams working on extracurricular projects. Our mentors also advise older students as they enter the workforce and our programs support scientists who may wish to change careers, to work as teachers themselves.

  • With this letter, I am announcing our partnership with the Leon Levy Foundation to support neuroscience post docs at universities and medical centers across the New York metropolitan area. The plan is to help remove barriers to advancement and provide significant support for the best and brightest young minds in the field.
  • Our Science Alliance brings graduate students and post docs together to gain communications and management skills, and to learn about professional opportunities and career strategies, including ways to fight bias in the workplace.
  • To support our belief that the best science takes place when problems are attacked with interdisciplinary perspectives by people from diverse backgrounds, we run the Interstellar Initiative with the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. It is a 6-month workshop to support teams of young scientists from around the world in developing innovative research proposals in the life sciences.
  • Our awards programs focus on early career scientists, to help them advance to become leaders in their fields.
Recent Nobel Prize laureate David Julius presents at the Academy’s Advances in Pain conference in May. Photo: Roger Torda

Scientific Convenings

Of course, we continue to convene scientists and policy experts for the exchange of scientific knowledge. Each year, our conferences feature Nobel Prize laureates and dozens of other researchers at the leading edge of their fields. We help specialists work together, and we tackle topics that grab the attention of broader audiences. Examples include a series on new evidence for the therapeutic value of psychedelics, ways to recognize and reduce bias in the health sciences, and continuing reports on SARS-CoV-2.

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

Our multidisciplinary science journal, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, publishes research of current interest for the broad scientific community and society at large. Recent articles have presented work on mathematics anxiety and performance, the benefits of micronutrients during pregnancy, and the biodiversity and composition of bat communities.

We are an independent, democratic organization, open to all who want to help advance science. Now, more than ever, we believe that this commitment is critically important for the lives of our children and grandchildren. Geopolitical forces continue to drive us apart in ways that not only fracture the world but also the practice and advancement of science. We work to bridge those divides, and to foster collaboration, innovation, and the imagination we need to solve our global challenges.

We receive no government funding, and your support plays a critical role in helping science—and scientists—work toward a better, safe, and prosperous world. Please continue your valuable support for the New York Academy of Sciences.

Climate Change and Collective Action: The Knowledge Resistance Problem

A colorful graphic image.

By Nicholas B. Dirks

June 1 marked the official start of hurricane season and already tropical storms Ana, Bill and Claudette have made their respective debuts.

And while summer has only just officially started, early hot dry conditions in Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah and New Mexico are exacerbating enormous wildfires putting a strain on local first responder services.  Severe drought conditions in the west is restricting the use of essential water supplies.  Its impact on the nation’s food supply has yet to be determined.

In May, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released revised temperature “normals” which show a significant shift towards warmer temperatures. We are far from the state of readiness required to deal with the inevitable outcomes.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm about the human impact upon climate change for well over a century. French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier, who is generally credited with the discovery of the greenhouse effect, wrote in an 1827 paper that: “The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air.”

But unlike the pandemic, which was a highly visible emergency with nightly news reports showing crowded ER’s and patients on ventilators, the impact of climate change has always been a much tougher sell.  In addition, when proposed changes come up against “the pocketbook,” there is pushback.

Recent Research and “Crisis Fatigue”

A recent paper published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences The distributional impact of climate change – discusses the various impacts of climate change from both a social and environmental perspective.  As with many other global issues, the impacts of climate change will most certainly affect poorer countries even more severely, but that doesn’t let the rich ones like the United States off the hook.

Then there is the risk of “crisis fatigue”—the continual sounding of an alarm about something that is not immediately visible, to the point that the problem is so overwhelming that individual actions won’t help.  But as we learned from Covid-19, there is no local crisis of this kind that doesn’t soon become a global crisis.

Science is an incremental process, and scientific knowledge is based on multiple arguments, experiments, and developments.  However, the scientific consensus that climate change is not only real, but escalating faster than many scientists had predicted, is based on measurements and models that issue a clear and urgent warning.  We need to act now, and fast, to drive effective policy to combat climate change.

Training scientists to be better communicators is a good step, but much more must and can be done to develop a public consensus that might mirror the scientific consensus.  Climatologists, meteorologists and environmental scientists play an important role, but we need to enlist all the disciplines of the academy (including social scientists and humanists), all the agencies of government (domestically and internationally), and all the major sectors of the economy to help chart a way forward.

The Impediment of Knowledge Resistance

As Mikael Klintman, in his recent book, “Knowledge Resistance,” has argued, “it becomes crucial to ask what we as individuals and groups can do about knowledge resistance in cases where, in the long run, it is problematic to ourselves and to others – humans, animals, and the environment alike.”

Professionals from healthcare, insurance, business, as well as legal and financial sectors can help scientists and public officials “sell” appropriate actions and solutions. The average person may not pay much mind to the science behind reducing carbon emissions but put in the context of how much taxpayer money is used to treat patients who have respiratory conditions exacerbated by polluted air from auto emissions, and it’s a different conversation.

Policymakers supporting the development of wetlands or sensitive barrier islands might be more inclined to rethink such plans if voters are provided with data on how much it is likely to cost when severe storms hit, in terms of increased taxes to pay for emergency relief, rebuilding, and higher insurance rates. Like the warnings and recommendations about COVID-19, climate change has become a deeply partisan issue, but preparedness for the long-term impacts of climate change is not “hysterics” or “alarmist” as some would argue.

Ignoring the impact of COVID-19 cost millions their lives, and billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost income. The economic cost of lost jobs and wages, as well as the cost of care of COVID patients, especially those who still have long-term health effects, has still to be tallied.

All the data are showing us what will happen if we are not ready. Science can deliver on the knowledge, but it will take genuine collective action to hone and sell the messages that can tread that fine line between preparation and panic.