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Will Intelligent Machines Become Human?

Northwestern University experts discuss the blurring line between man and machine

  • Panelists to discuss the relationship between humans and intelligent machines
  • The new field of digital humanities demands vigorous research, experts say
  • Free event held at 4 p.m. March 5 in Locy Hall, 1850 Campus Drive, Evanston

Evanston, Ill. --- Robots that can think and reason like humans are more common today than ever. But as scientists work on engineering machines with even better cognitive capabilities, some are asking a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?

A panel of Northwestern University experts will discuss intelligent machines and their evolving relationship with human creators at 4 p.m. Thursday, March 5. The event, hosted by the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, will be held in Locy Hall, Room 111, 1850 Campus Drive in Evanston.

No longer relegated to the world of science fiction, today’s machines are learning to learn. They’re studying oncology alongside humans, serving as companions for the elderly and even operating as self-driving cars.

At the same time, machines are used to enhance people, whether in the form of hearing aids, pacemakers or other devices.

During the program, which is free and open to the public, experts will explain Northwestern’s IBM Watson University Program, which offers faculty and students the chance to work with the Watson system, a cognitive computing service developed by IBM. The panel also will address the rise of “personable” interactive machines and the emerging challenges and questions society faces due to the rapid acceleration of smart devices.

“What will happen as humans continue to engineer machines to learn how to learn, to create music, to make war, to engage us in conversation, to police us and to cure disease?” asked panel moderator Sylvester Johnson, an associate professor of African American studies and religious studies. “I can’t help but be overwhelmed by what appears to be a massive, impending disruption for human society.”

The disruption could be good, Johnson said. But it could also be catastrophic. “Will our children become machines?” he wondered. “Will intelligent weapons outsmart and kill us?”

At least one thing seems clear: “The digital domain is raising big humanities questions that demand vigorous research,” Johnson said.

Panelists include:

Sylvester Johnson (moderator) is associate professor of African American studies and religious studies at Northwestern. He is a digital humanist currently working to create a digital scholarly edition of an early modern text. He is the author of “The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity” (Palgrave 2004) and “African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom,” which will be published this year by Cambridge University Press.

Diego Klabjan is a professor of industrial engineering and management sciences and the director of Master of Science in Analytics Program at Northwestern. His research interests include analytics; business intelligence; smart grid; transportation; supply chain management; and optimization. He received an IBM 2012 Watson Solutions Faculty Award to implement a course based on a new class of analytical systems — which were used to create Watson, the artificial intelligence computer that clinched a victory on "Jeopardy!" in 2011.

James J. Hodge is an assistant professor in the department of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. He specializes in comparative media aesthetics, with an emphasis on digital media. He also works on media theory, film theory and experimental media art genres, including new media art, electronic literature and avant-garde film.

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