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Inside the Classroom: Building Multidisciplinary Conversations around AI and Art

Stanford’s AI+Activism+Art course explores how the arts and humanities are crucial to the equitable development and use of AI.

Students walk by an art sculpture on Stanford campus.

A new interdisciplinary Stanford course is working to position the arts and humanities dead center in conversations about the design and impact of AI technology on individuals and society.

The pilot class AI+Activism+Art debuted virtually in spring quarter. The course, which will be part of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI Symbolic Systems track beginning this year, was attended by students majoring in fields including Computer Science, Art, English, Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, African and African American Studies, Symbolic Systems, and Science, Technology and Society.

“I’ve gone from being a Human Biology major to an Art Practice major, so I’ve taken a variety of courses,” says senior Maddie Pilchard, an Art Practice major due to graduate this summer, “I’ve also worked in IT. I learned more about technology in 10 weeks in this course than I have in two and a half years on the job.”

“A Constant Discussion of Ethics”

The quarter-long course was designed and taught by Michele Elam, the William Robertson Coe Professor in the Humanities and associate director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. It examines AI from the perspective of feminist, gender, and sexuality studies; decolonialism, and race studies; and included lectures by visiting artists and technologists, classroom discussion, and a final project of either a scholarly paper or creative interdisciplinary project. 

During the program, students examine ongoing narratives about technology, looking at how those narratives are disseminated through society via art and media, how they influence people’s identity and social interaction, and how they affect the public’s understanding of institutions, such as health care, finance, and justice systems. They also explore how art in the age of AI is challenging cultural norms.  

“This course considers how the humanities and arts function as crucibles that society uses to understand and address urgent social questions about these emergent technologies, especially those that concern equity, inclusion, and diversity,” says Elam. “Some of the questions raised included ‘What is intelligence and why are we asking?’” Elam says. “’What does AI activism look like?’ ‘How can the arts’ varied perspectives and world views encourage change within technology design and implementation?’“

While many Stanford CS courses include information on the social and ethical impact of emergent technology, AI+Activism+Art is designed to allow students to investigate these issues more extensively, Elam says.

“Classes like this one can interrupt the silos of majors, fields, lines of work, and ways of thinking and being in the world,” Elam says. “It’s important to have courses like this that can be embedded in curricula, so they’re not perceived as one-offs, but instead are integral to a student’s major or minor.”

Such an approach is valuable, says Isabelle Lee, a rising senior studying computer science who’s also interested in music, sound technology, and social activism.

“This course was intriguing to me because it featured a constant discussion of ethics and thinking about how different people are affected by certain actions,” Lee says. “Also, I came into Stanford as a humanities major and always wondered how to connect the arts and CS. This course reassured me that I could bridge them and that there was a lot to be pursued at this intersection.”

Not a Scary, Dystopian Thing

This spring’s course included racial justice activist Mutale Nkonde, who discussed her work with Amnesty International to ban the use of facial recognition technology; author and arts curator Legacy Russell, who spoke about her work around art practices that remove the boundary between internet art, performance, and activism; and Stanford associate professor of music and computer scientist Ge Wang, who shared his extensive work in music design that incorporates both humans and AI systems.

The course’s speakers were a highlight for Jianna Reyes So, a rising senior in product design working on a co-terminal master’s degree in CS. Her final project, a series of creative and nuanced projected images dealing with religion, sexuality, and cultural heritage, challenged today’s use of oversimplified visuals in advertising images and product design that too often camouflages a more complex truth. 

“One of the biggest takeaways from the class for me was seeing how current scholars and artists are trying to pursue ethical design, which can be really hard to visualize and put into practice,” Reyes says. “I’ve been looking for a really robust class about ethics, artificial intelligence, and its implications. I really appreciated the opportunity to read about — and to meet — many black and indigenous artists, activists, and scholars. It was a very participatory experience.”

Lee’s final project, a podcast on 1960s audio technology, examined how microphones used during that period were designed to accurately depict male voices, but had the effect of distorting female voices, making them sound shrill and less authoritative. The course, she says, was instructive in a way her work in industry hadn’t been able to be, she says.

“I have a new appreciation of the value of having people of different disciplines working on something together,” Lee says. “It can be difficult in industry having to communicate with people across different teams; communication can be obstructed by jargon and specialization. But here in a university, that communication was so valuable, and I learned so much from people who are not CS majors.”

For art major Pilchard, the course changed the way she perceived AI overall.

“I always thought of AI as a scary, dystopian thing, but I can now see that it’s a tool that enables creativity and allows everyone to have access to the creation of art,” she says. “Now I ask myself ‘How should we engineer systems so that they represent all populations?’ ‘How do you assess a system to find out if it’s harming certain populations?’ I have more awareness of these issues, as well as a new appreciation of the value of people of different disciplines coming together to create it.”

These revelations are exactly what Elam hoped for in designing the course, which she’ll teach again in spring 2022, this time in collaboration with assistant professor of art and art history Camille Utterback.

“My goal is that students bring this knowledge into whatever field they pursue and that they feel they can and should participate in the conversation about advanced technologies shaping our public and private lives, as well as their own work, whatever that is or becomes,” Elam says. “We need this generation to bring their ‘everything’ to these urgent and evolving social questions.”

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