Monthly Archive for: ‘January, 2014’

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Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era


Click to visit Barrat’s website.


Updated: 1/29/14:

Per James Barrat ’83 at lunchtime in the Baltimore airport (no delays expected en route to Davidson): fresh talking points for tomorrow’s campus presentations and Charlotte Talks, WFAE at 9 a.m.!

Google’s New A.I. Ethics Board Might Save Humanity From Extinction in the Huffington Post

Updated 1/28/14:

Google has now bought its ninth robotics firm in a year, and that’s just the tip of a titanic iceberg.

Click to enlarge.

This Thursday, Jan. 30, come hear James Barrat ’83, author and filmmaker, talk about his book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, as well as his take on the value of his liberal arts education in his (much!) broader documentary filmmaking career. See campus calendar for details or click poster at left. Also, members of the campus community can check Inside Davidson announcements for opportunities to share a roundtable meal with James and students, Thursday lunch or Friday breakfast.

And tune in to “Charlotte Talks” on WFAE Thursday at 9 a.m. to hear Barrat live with Davidson’s own Dr. Raghu Ramanujan and Dr. Mary Lou Maher of UNC Charlotte.

Original post, 10/2/13:

Some days it’s hard work being a humanist—or any other kind of human— in a STEM, STEM, STEM world. Already today, I have balked at Excel, pitched a fit at Verizon, and narrowly avoided a nasty Blair Witch Project reaction to a dizzying series of administrative Prezis marked “ACTION REQUIRED.” So I am trying to be easy with myself for being a bit behind in my reading.

I also admit to no small trepidation in getting to the next book on my list: Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, by James Barrat ’83.

Wait, what?


Yes, the title is much. But having interviewed Barrat some years back for the Davidson Journal about his rock-solid career as a globe-trotting documentarian, I knew him to be a thoughtful, reasonable sort not prone to needless hyperbole. So I called him up.

He spoke of the high-tech “intelligence explosion” bearing us ceaselessly into the future.

“Computers can do recursive operations at lightning speed,” he said. “About the time we realize we’ve got something that’s the level of humans, it will be past us.”

Oh, dear. He proceeded to tick off a disconcerting list of possibilities and potentialities.

“Whatever is created,” he said, “will know our history of becoming addicted to our technologies. Its first appearance could be an app. Then it could slip whatever restraints it might have and become autonomous.”

I peeked into the book last night. In it, Barrat offers reassurance of his continuing commitment to thoroughness of inquiry: “My profession rewards critical thinking,” he writes in the foreword. “A documentary filmmaker has to be on the lookout for stories too good to be true. You could waste months or years making a documentary about a hoax, or participate in perpetrating one.”

Click to visit website

Recommended reading! From Barrat’s website:

Our Final Invention explores how the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence challenges our existence with machines that won’t love us or hate us, but whose indifference could spell our doom. Until now, intelligence has been constrained by the physical limits of its human hosts. What will happen when the brakes come off the most powerful force in the universe?



MLK Day and Davidson: Time to Reflect

John Gadsby Chapman depicts Pocahontas, wearing white, being baptized Rebecca by Anglican minister Alexander Whiteaker in Jamestown, Virginia; this event is believed to have taken place in 1613 or 1614. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday I attended “MLK Seminar Series: Racial Framing in Disney Films and Social Media.”  Joshua Arthur ’12, Tommy Chaisuesomboon ’17, Elizabeth Lackey ’17, Craig Stevens ’17, Joi Stevens ’17 and Zach Zapatero ’17 examined how racial framing is perpetuated in Disney children’s films, as well as in social media.

Kids do see color, so it’s important to talk to them early, they said. I recalled Uncle Remus and his story about the tarbaby, from a long-ago kids’ movie matinee at Thruway Shopping Center in Winston-Salem. What a fun story for six-year-olds of any background—and at the same time what potentially harmful stereotypes if left unexplored for their fullest inventory of meaning. I’m grateful for a strong sense of exploration of context and fairness that I gained from family, from schoolteachers, and, notably, from my own—ongoing!—Davidson education.

Pocahontas, Walt Disney Pictures, 1995

Tough questions are the stock in trade for fully exploring life, so kudos to these students for bringing some tough ones forward in a room packed with interested students, faculty, staff and community members.

How much of Disney’s treatment of skin color and race is conscious? How much is unconscious? Where is the line?  How have such lines shifted and changed, and not changed, over the years? Where do colorism and sexism meet in film? In other, emerging media? Important questions all, ones that will never be definitively answered.

But worth a second thought. And a third, and fourth….

They’re Ba-a-a-ack! Spring Semester 2014: The Inundation Commences


Students have arrived for the start of spring semester, and a full calendar beckons, academically and beyond.

Rob Hagerty ’15: Blue skies ahead!

“It’s the end of my laziness,” Rob Hagerty ’15 of Chevy Chase, Md., says with equal parts wistfulness and anticipation. “It’s the end of boredom on the one hand and the beginning of being inundated!” As a hall counselor, he’s enjoying the excitement of freshmen on his hall as they shuffle rooms, start a fresh class schedule, and in a few cases lament hometown-honey breakups over winter break. Rob is struck by the cohesion of Davidson’s ever-evolving freshman hall experience: “The guys are having a good time getting reconnected. They have a very real sense of camaraderie. There are not many cliques that I see, and there’s nobody who seems like the odd man out. People are doing their own little things, but they’re having fun together.”

Belk First East: Think, think, think.

A full campus calendar helps with that. Herewith, a sampling of just a few imminent highlights open to the public:

• On Friday, the popular “Musical Interludes” series kicks off the season with the first of many free Friday lunchtime concerts in Tyler-Tallman Hall at 12:30 p.m.

• Next Tuesday, an 11 a.m. lecture in Tyler-Tallman, “Public Dissonance,” takes a look at music through the lens of gender and sexuality studies.

• Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Artist Associate in Piano Cynthia Lawing offers a concert in Tyler-Tallman.

• In athletics, hoops and other sports are in full swing. Black Out Belk on Thursday at 7 p.m. as  the men’s basketball team takes on Elon. On Saturday starting at 1 p.m., Wildcat swimmers take on Gardner-Webb at the Baker Sports Complex Cannon Pool.

• Davidson celebrates Martin Luther King Day on Monday with a full range of activities, highlighted on Tuesday at 11 a.m. in Duke Family Performance Hall with a talk by Benjamin T. Jealous, immediate past president and CEO of the NAACP.

• On Jan. 30, James Barrat ’83 will speak about his documentary film career at 11 a.m. in Lilly Gallery and at 7 p.m. in Hance Auditorium about his wave-making new book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. Check out his press page.

A few more teaser topics from January: Wrestling, tennis, Sochi, lunar new year, an Ai Weiwei exhibit, Dorothy Allison, the Reduced Shakespeare Company…. February and beyond: “Identifying Trust” with President Emeritus John Kuykendall ’59, violinist Jamie Laval, Aquila Theatre Company in Fahrenheit 451, “The History of the Universe from Beginning to End” with physics Nobel Laureate John Mather, “Dragnet Nation,” sustainable art, “Mr. Marmalade,” spring liederabend, Providence Gap

Bookmark the Davidson College calendar, and prepare to be “inundated” with good stuff!