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School of Oriental and African STEM?

By Fakhriya M. Suleiman, MA Global Media and Postnational Communication

On 17 February, the SOAS press team announced the launch of a new postgraduate module on artificial intelligence (AI).

SOAS’ website boasts the multidisciplinary ‘Artificial Intelligence and Human Security’ course will offer students an insight into ‘national and international threats and benefits of AI research, the impact of AI on state-society relations, warfare, citizenship and international relations’ and much more. 

According to Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, the module convenor, this course will ‘engage the future security of humanity from a philosophical perspective and on the basis of current strides in AI technology.’

“Professor Adib-Moghaddam stresses the need for widespread access to AI literacy to ensure its development does not become a ‘danger to humanity.’”

In his article for The Conversation, Professor Adib-Moghaddam stresses the need for widespread access to AI literacy to ensure its development does not become a ‘danger to humanity.’ He cited that if not adequately controlled or talked about, instead of a ‘“human ruling ‘master race”, as has been seen with colonialism, eugenics theory and the like, the future may be faced with a ‘ruling machine race.’ He mentioned that indications from recent research papers forecasting AI replacing half of the world’s workforce could spell a ‘fourth industrial revolution.’

He concluded his article by stating that if AI research remains centred around ‘the notion of perfection and maximum productivity, it will be a destructive force that will lead to more wars, famines and social and economic distress – especially for the poor.’

The introduction of this module indicates that SOAS may be departing from being a solely humanities institution. When asked by the SOAS Spirit, Professor Adam Habib, the university’s director, reassured us that the penultimate S in SOAS will not be replaced by the word STEM anytime soon. 

‘The course itself is not about AI as such, there will be no teaching on software nor programming. The focus of the course is in regards to the ethics and social consequences of AI.’ Professor Habib went further to explain that ‘SOAS will remain true to its mandate’ of being a humanities institution and that rebranding ‘is not on the cards.’

However, he was hopeful that SOAS will partner with STEM institutions in the future to ‘address the global issues of our time.’ He said, for example, ‘it would be great if SOAS could come together with an institution like UCL. A course that also examines the human dimension behind climate change from an African, Middle Eastern or Asian perspective would be beneficial as such an issue cannot be fully understood from a scientific lens alone.’ 

Professor Habib also expressed regret over world governments disregarding the importance of humanities for society. ‘It is misguided for politicians to assume just anyone can succinctly approach social scientific questions raised within our society – specialists are needed!’

When asked whether a module exploring the human aspect of AI would be offered to SOAS’ undergraduate students, Professor Habib explained that this was ‘under consideration,’ but there would be a need to ‘tailor the complexity of the course to suit our undergraduate students.’

On the SOAS website, the course is said to be ‘one of the first such classes [to be offered] in the United Kingdom and beyond.’

Photo caption: SOAS is set to introduce a new postgraduate module on Artificial Intelligence. (Credit: FundCalibre)

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