Ethical issues around movie recommendations provided by Netflix and virtual backgrounds offered on Zoom are among the topics that students at Bowdoin College will tackle in a new  class on artificial intelligence set to be offered in the fall of 2023.

The AI ethics course marks new intellectual ground for the Brunswick liberal arts school, one of 15 colleges selected through an application process to work with the North Carolina-based National Humanities Center as a part of its Responsible Artificial Intelligence Curriculum Design Project.

“The liberal arts is an attempt to make sense of the world, and AI is so dramatically transforming what we call the world, that there’s no way to make sense of it without understanding AI,” said Fernando Nascimento, one of four Bowdoin professors from different disciplines who are developing the course.

The nonprofit center-sponsored project is providing academic support and stipends to professors from across the nation to develop courses that give students the ability to explore topics related to AI ethics.

Although the Bowdoin course has not been fully fleshed out, it will cover topics that are central to responsible AI usage, including unintended consequences in the job market as well as media surrounding the nature of AI itself.

“I think that’s the most important part of this program is that oftentimes the study of AI ethics happens hypothetically, or in a think tank somewhere. Maybe a paper is released to make recommendations,” said Andy Mink, the center’s vice president of educational programs. “In this case, it’s a very real application of theory to practice.”


Bowdoin College professor Eric Chown holds an AI robot, formerly used in competition for Bowdoin’s world champion RoboCup soccer. He is one of four Bowdoin professors developing a course in ethics in artificial intelligence. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Eric Chown, another professor working on the project, said the class will address how AI appears in everyday life, ways in which people are often unaware.

“Everyone knows about the Terminator; everyone knows about self-driving cars. What we need are more narratives around day-to-day AI to help people understand and cope with that kind of thing,” he said.

The course will be co-taught by professors from different disciplines including digital and computational studies, government, philosophy and cinema studies. This interdisciplinary approach, Chown believes, will provide students with a unique and rewarding academic experience.

“Having multiple perspectives is just a wonderful thing intellectually. It gets us into material that we wouldn’t otherwise get into,” Chown said.

The course grew out of the school’s desire to increase its technology-related offerings, which led it to the National Humanities Center. Each summer, the nonprofit brings humanities educators from across the globe to its complex in Durham, North Carolina, to participate in research. The goal of these programs is to use the humanities to approach issues facing the modern world.

“At the heart of the humanities is a notion of how to better understand our role as humans in the world we live in,” Mink said. “More recently, I say the last 10 to 20 years, the humanities has become an increasingly important way to understand the grand questions of the world today.”


This year, the center offered professors from 15 American colleges and universities, from The University of Utah to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, the chance to come to North Carolina to develop a course related to AI. The professors came from various fields but mostly philosophy and computer science.

Nascimento attended the summer institute, and the work that he did with the other academics there helped him and his fellow Bowdoin professors narrow down the scope of their course.

“When you think about AI, it’s not unusual for you to think about killer robots or autonomous vehicles, but we think that there are more urgent matters to take care of,” Nascimento said.

In the case of a Zoom background, he said, “there are questions of fairness … because it was trained with a large majority of samples having white faces, and it didn’t work well for Black faces. That’s a matter related to AI that we have to tackle right now.”

Mink said that the center selected Bowdoin to participate in the project because of the nature of its students and the interdisciplinary approach that it takes as a liberal arts college.

“Students who attend Bowdoin are very interested in understanding how the world works,” he said. “Bowdoin is creating such a diverse team approach to designing this course that’s very appealing. To see a course that’s being developed from (multiple) disciplinary lenses is really exciting.”


Charlie Galicich, a Bowdoin junior who is doing research with Nascimento this summer, said that’s a primary reason he’d like to take the course.

“What interests me is how AI touches so many different dimensions, from the justice system to banking,” he said. “Every part of the study is holistic because it is found in so many aspects of my life.”

The four professors hope that more AI-related classes will follow.

“Our goal starting out is that this won’t be a one-off,” Chown said. “The average student going through life needs to learn about AI at this point because it’s impacting them in everyday life.”

This story was updated at 5:05 p.m. on July 20 to corrected the first name of Fernando Nascimento. 

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