Nearly 50 years ago, Shirley Welsh Ryan ’61, ’19 H (’97, ’00 P) approached Don Jacobs, then dean of the Kellogg School of Management, with a challenge — bring the University’s intellectual life to the broader Chicago-area community. The pair met the challenge by launching a much-loved yearly tradition, the Northwestern Learning for Life series. Every year, Learning for Life focuses on various angles of an important and timely topic. Presented by leading University faculty experts, subjects have ranged from the human genome to big data to globalization to the influence of media.
This year’s series, held in October, examined artificial intelligence (AI) and its many implications. (No, ChatGPT did not write this article.) The four weekly lectures —conducted on Zoom — provided an overview of AI, including its capabilities and challenges; its potential as well as current role in health care; its use in education and learning; and a concluding discussion of AI and creativity and why AI may always remain “artificial.” With nearly 300 attendees, this year’s lecture series attracted the largest number of participants in the program’s history.
“This is our 48th Learning for Life, designed for people who love to learn, love to feel the thrill of empowerment to understand and express ideas to create a better world,” Ryan said, crystallizing the series’ philosophy in her welcome remarks during the opening meeting. At each class, Ryan’s opening and parting words emphasized the interdisciplinary strengths of Northwestern and its faculty. Lisa Dhar, associate vice president for Innovation and New Ventures, served as class coordinator and moderator throughout the four-week series, and Aimée Sriver, associate director of special events in Alumni Relations and Development, managed the class outreach.
Pioneering AI expert Kristian Hammond was the series’ first featured speaker, setting the stage for subsequent presentations with his comments. Hammond is the Bill and Cathy Osborn Professor of Computer Science at the McCormick School of Engineering, co-founder of the artificial intelligence company Narrative Science and director of the Center for Advancing Safety of Machine Intelligence.
“It’s not even a question. Right now, AI has become an integral part of our ecosystem,” Hammond said. “But what’s more interesting is each and every one of you has interacted with AI at least a couple times today. If your car parked itself; if you used anything that looks like Siri or Alexa, any sort of personal assistant; if you used Google — any of those things, all of those things use AI. They’re driven by AI.”
Illustrating the cross-cutting nature of AI, speakers in the four classes represented the McCormick School, School of Communication, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, School of Education and Social Policy and Kellogg School of Management and, in addition to Hammond, included:
- Professor Duri Long, School of Communication
- Dean of McCormick School of Engineering, Professor Chris Schuh
- Abel Kho, Feinberg School of Medicine
- Professor Maia Jacobs, McCormick School of Engineering
- Dean of Feinberg School of Medicine, Eric Neilson
- Professor Marcelo Worsley, McCormick School of Engineering and School of Education and Social Policy
- Professor Elizabeth Lenaghan, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
- Professor Sepehr Vakil, School of Education and Social Policy
- Jennifer Carolan, Reach Capital
- Professor Dashun Wang, Kellogg School of Management
- Dean of Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Professor Adrian Randolph
In the final session, President Michael Schill joined to highlight the timeliness of the series’ topic — given data analytics and AI comprise one of the University’s priorities — as well as how the speakers embody Northwestern’s boundary-breaking approach to leadership in research and technology.