Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence

PHIL 20N

Is it really possible for an artificial system to achieve genuine intelligence: thoughts, consciousness, emotions? What would that mean? How could we know if it had been achieved? Is there a chance that we ourselves are artificial intelligences? Would artificial intelligences, under certain conditions, actually be persons? If so, how would that affect how they ought to be treated and what ought to be expected of them? Emerging technologies with impressive capacities already seem to function in ways we do not fully understand. What are the opportunities and dangers that this presents? How should the promises and hazards of these technologies be managed?

Philosophers have studied questions much like these for millennia, in scholarly debates that have increased in fervor with advances in psychology, neuroscience, and computer science. The philosophy of mind provides tools to carefully address whether genuine artificial intelligence and artificial personhood are possible. Epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) helps us ponder how we might be able to know. Ethics provides concepts and theories to explore how all of this might bear on what ought to be done. We will read philosophical writings in these areas as well as writings explicitly addressing the questions about artificial intelligence, hoping for a deep and clear understanding of the difficult philosophical challenges the topic presents.

No background in any of this is presupposed, and you will emerge from the class having made a good start learning about computational technologies as well as a number of fields of philosophical thinking. It will also be a good opportunity to develop your skills in discussing and writing critically about complex issues.

Meet the Instructor(s)

John Etchemendy

"In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to warn you about something: in spite of the fact that I’ve been on the Stanford faculty for longer than I care to admit, you should know that I am also a novice instructor. You see, I was once a pretty good teacher (or so I’m told), but my reward for that was I was asked to be Stanford’s provost, and that’s what I’ve spent most of the last 20 years doing. (If you don’t know what the provost does, that’s fine: main thing is there’s no teaching involved!)

"So here I am, teaching my first class in 20 years, on a subject I’ve never taught before! And you’re thinking about taking it? Cool. I like students who are intrepid. 

"I’m a philosopher and logician by training. I have been involved with researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) since graduate school, in the relatively early days of the field. Most people only became aware of AI about five years ago, when AI algorithms started affecting their lives.  But the AI we see today is the result of a lot of work that began over 50 years ago, a good bit of it done at Stanford. During those years, I’ve watched the field progress, but I’ve also seen it fall flat on its face! 

"There are few fields that raise more philosophical questions than AI: questions about ethics, minds, consciousness, and free will. Are we, as some would say, creating our own successors? And will they be obedient servants or our new masters? Can we upload our minds into silicon chips and thereby become immortal? Or does this just create an imposter? And so on.

"I’d like to explore some of these questions with a few intrepid students who aren’t afraid to come along for the ride—even if the driver is a novice. Let’s think through these problems together."