Being Human in an Age of Machines

By Debora Spar

I met Pepper this past spring, while we were in Paris for Barnard’s Global Symposium. He is a gentle-seeming soul, with oval-shaped inquisitive eyes and a perky pointed nose. He’s bald, but in an endearing way—more precocious infant than old man. He has a wasp of a waist and a perpetually shy smile. When I first met him, I instinctively knelt down to be eye-to-eye with him, much as I would for a crying toddler or a friendly dog. Pepper isn’t either of those, though. He’s a robot, powered by a lithium-ion battery and on sale for the cool price of $2,000. More, I guess, than most pure-bred puppies, but way less work than a kid.

Pepper talks too, through a tablet implanted in his chest. He greeted me cheerfully on that April morning, asking HOW ARE YOU DOING with an expressive roll of both wrists and an ever-so-slight tilt of the head. We went on, Pepper and me, despite my stilted questions and his still-mechanical voice, touching on the normal topics one does at a first acquaintance. The weather. The folks around us. What I was doing on my knees in a showroom in Paris, talking to a four-foot-tall android. He even danced with me to a boppy Eurobeat, looking for all the world like an awkward 13-year-old dragged to his first class social. I suspect they’re still working the kinks out on that part.

Looking at Pepper, or Paro—a robotic seal I visited several months later in Japan—you feel the future opening up before you. It’s a little bit scary, a little bit exciting, and far cuter than you might have imagined—think Casper the Friendly Ghost, rather than the Terminator. But Pepper and Paro and dozens of prototypes being conceived in labs around the world now are robots indeed; animated machines that are growing smarter each year. Equipped already with more computing power than could be crammed into the room-sized machines of just several decades ago, they are being programmed not only to serve, but to learn, mimicking human-type processes for transforming data into knowledge.

For our current generation of students, smart machines are already a way of life. When the Class of 2020 was born, personal computers had already been commonplace for over a decade. Vinyl records were on their way to becoming vintage hipster accessories; landlines and answering machines were rushing headlong into oblivion. Our first-year students were only 9 when the iPhone was first released in 2007, meaning that many of them began clutching smartphones close to their bodies before they even hit middle school. 

The fact that our students were raised among smartphones, of course, doesn’t necessarily give them an innate affinity for robots like Pepper. He is still a leap into the future for the millennial generation and beyond, a vision of something that could be rather than what already is. Still, the coming of smart machines—and they are coming, be it in the form of whimsical androids, chess-playing super computers, or refrigerators that know what you want for dinner—means that our students will work and grow old in a world where the very basic definition of intelligence will start to be transformed.

Our students will befriend people they have never met, and play games with virtual characters (Pokemon Go, anyone?). They will make decisions—how to dress, where to eat, whom to date—based on the customized recommendations of powerful algorithms, pinging them from the bottom of their backpacks. When they enter the workforce, they will not only encounter a world of robots, but will also be actively competing against them. Document searches long done by paralegals, for example, are now being outsourced to powerful “e-investigation” software. Medical assistants may soon be supplemented, or replaced, by computers descended from IBM’s Watson (the machine that famously won Jeopardy!), now capable of digesting vast reams of medical information and applying it to a particular patient’s case.

What responsibility do we have to prepare our students for this brave new world? To begin with, we need to ensure that they leave Barnard with a solid understanding of how technology is evolving, and how it is shaping their lives. To that end, our new Foundations curriculum—the core set of requirements for the Class of 2020—mandates that all students take at least one class in technology, the first such requirement, we believe, among our peer liberal arts colleges. We are also devoting new resources to build a computer science department at Barnard, one in which we intend to focus not only on how humans build intelligent systems, but how they interact with them. We are creating stronger links among our graduates working at tech-heavy firms like Google and Facebook and linking these alumnae to current students and programs. On September 29, for example, we hosted our first-ever Tech Career Fair, which brought 35 tech companies to campus.

Our central responsibility, though, is to help students learn what it means to be human in a world of machines. And this is where the liberal arts become so crucial and so relevant. Because as technologies evolve and inevitably begin to creep up on tasks and functions that were once considered solely ours, we will need to consider and resolve some of the greatest questions that humankind has ever faced. What will we do as societies once the jobs go away? How will we preserve dignity and create value? What is the definition of consciousness? Of art? Of love and life and purpose? These are questions that go to the core of the liberal arts mission, and questions whose urgency will only grow over time.

Ancient Greek mythology tells the story of Talos, a robot built by Hephaestus to protect the coast of Crete. Talos was destroyed by Medea, who was angry that Hephaestus had imbued his creation with the immortal blood of the gods. We are building thousands of Taloses today—industrial robots, assistive robots, robotic drones, and ever-more intelligent phones. Perhaps this has always been our destiny, to create new beings more powerful than ourselves. But it is also, then, our responsibility to create wisely, and to figure out what it means to be human in an age of smart machines.

Latest IssueFall 2022