"It's our future, let's build it together"

5 Questions with Amanda Stent

December 6, 2021

Amanda Stent,
Inaugural Director,
Davis Institute for
Artificial Intelligence

1. AI is a very broad and complex field. Is there one aspect of AI and/or machine learning that especially interests you? 

The particular area of AI where I have spent most of my career is natural language processing. The goal of natural language processing is to enable computers to understand (and produce!) human languages like English or Spanish. Within natural language processing, I am especially interested in how communication happens (whether that be communication between humans, or between humans and computers).

2. How can AI be applied in liberal arts disciplines, such as political science or philosophy? 

I would say there are at least two broad ways in which AI can be applied in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences: first, to analyze large data sets, and second, to develop provocative or insightful artifacts. Let’s talk a little more about the first way AI can be applied. In political science, for example, machine learning, speech processing, and natural language processing have been applied over large data sets to analyze polling responses, examine news coverage, and predict how first term congresspeople will vote. AI tools like computer vision and natural language processing systems can be used to sort, organize and extract insights from large quantities of data, and scholars from different fields can then incorporate those insights into their own methods of practice. In Maine, the company IDEXX is using AI in this way for veterinary science. Now let’s turn to the second broad way in which AI can be applied. An artist might incorporate speech and video synthesis into a system that generates movie characters, and use the result for social commentary. This was done recently by Alethea AI, and the result was sold through Sotheby’s. At Colby, in the spring, AI techniques will be used for digital printmaking.
Of course, the relationship goes both ways. Because AI increasingly influences individuals, groups, and society at large, it is critical that other disciplines inform the development of AI, so that we have AI that serves human needs and priorities. For example, philosophers may be interested to contribute to the ethics of AI, or sociologists and anthropologists may have guidance for how to develop truly human-centered AI.

3. How will the Davis AI Institute bring in students from all academic backgrounds to see how AI operates in a cross-disciplinary way? Similarly, what will be the Davis AI Institute’s role in the private sector and/or broader community? 

With the Davis Institute for AI, we plan a hands-on introduction to AI to students from any major. Students will bring a data set or idea related to their major and will form teams to work together over the course of a semester to apply AI to that data set or idea. We plan a very similar hands-on introduction to AI for Colby faculty, also; the faculty can then incorporate what they learn into their own discipline-specific courses. In addition to this and other courses, starting in spring 2022 we will offer a regular AI seminar open to all students and faculty, and we regularly bring in interesting speakers for talks that are live-streamed and freely available to the community. 

To answer your second question, we welcome companies, nonprofits, and government agencies to propose data sets and problems that Colby students can apply AI to (through hackathons, course projects, or summer internships). We invite anyone in the region to sign up for our external newsletter, to keep up with AI-related activities at Colby and in the area. And we’d like to build local AI entrepreneurship in collaboration with the Halloran Institute at Colby; we have a five-year goal of 5  new AI-informed Colby-located startups and 25 Colby-industry (or Colby-government, or Colby-nonprofit) partnerships around AI.

4. What resources, partners, and companies have been helpful to the Davis Institute as it has continued to grow? 

I will mention just two, to give you an idea of the range of partnerships we welcome. To help Colby students find AI-related internships and study abroad programs, we are partnering with DavisConnects. Colby generally, and certainly in the area of AI, is partnering with the Roux Institute. And we look forward to talking with many of you!

5. What are your plans for growing the Davis AI Institute in the next few years?

Colby will be hiring several faculty with interdisciplinary AI expertise. We will develop educational programs for faculty and students. We plan to invite scholars and leaders to Maine each summer to do interesting AI-informed research and educate each other, and we plan to share what we do broadly with other colleges and universities. Here’s another of our five-year goals: that 25% of Colby graduates will have a substantial AI component to their education. And the local community will be able to participate in this, through student internships, student projects, and AI showcases held at Colby.

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Last modified: December 6, 2021

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