A New Dimension to Poly’s Curriculum: AI, Ethics, and the Costs of Power

Chelsea Lin, Managing Editor

Beginning in the upcoming academic year, Poly will be offering a new Computer and Information Science course, Advanced AI, Ethics, and the Costs of Power in the spring semester. “This class isn’t a harder version of something Poly already has,” Upper School Computer Science Teacher Dylan Klett, the instructor of the course, wrote in an email to The Polygon. “It is a new challenge that stands alone.” Students will be pushed “to think about the world in entirely new ways,” as the course will “attack questions that are some of humanity’s oldest monsters, questions about the future of humanity and the nature of reality itself that have haunted the human race for thousands of years.” Advanced AI, Ethics, and the Costs of Power is available to rising juniors and seniors, who have been approved to take this course based on a placement test administered in mid-April.

According to Klett, AI works by “humans writing the steps for the computer to follow. We give the system input, tell it the output we want, but leave it up to the computer how it finds that output. The problem is, a system making decisions on its own might make decisions that are technically ‘correct,’ but definitely not the answer we’re looking for.” Klett explained why it is so important to learn about the power of AI and the threats that it is capable of posing to humans: “Imagine an alien species came to earth, and they were thousands of times smarter than us. Their science, military power, and technology would all be thousands of years beyond what we’re capable of.” This is why it is so important for humans to learn how to control the power of AI, as “we’re not waiting for those aliens to come and visit us —we’re building them right here at home.”

While learning how to control AI is important, the discussion of the ethics of AI is just as crucial. “Who gets to decide what it means for an AI to be ‘good’?” Klett wrote. Today, Klett noted, most AI are built by private corporations whose goal is to make money. “As AI becomes more powerful and affects a larger and larger segment of society, it’s critical that private companies trying to make money are not the only ones deciding what it means to be ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” explained Klett.

Many apps utilize AI to cater to what users are interested in so that users can do what the designer of the app wants them to do, allowing the owners to make more money. Specifically, AI is built to figure out what the user is interested in, so that it can show the user more of it, making the company more money. Klett gives the example: “Oh, you liked this cat video? Here’s another 10,000 cat videos!” Klett notes, however, that it’s important to consider ethics in this situation, as “the computer doesn’t care what you’re watching, as long as you’re watching something.” AI ethics is important to understand what is “right” and what is “wrong.” “How can we take the lessons we’ve learned from it and build it into an AI system so that it never makes wrong choices, only right ones?” wrote Klett.

However, there are serious threats of AI that are poorly designed. Klett said that “AI presents an extinction-level threat to humanity,” which is why it is so important nowadays for students to learn how to control the power of AI. “For example, if we asked an AI to find the cure for all human cancer, it might come up with the answer ‘Destroy all humans. No more human cancer!’” said Klett. Obviously, that is not the solution we are looking for. Poly students are excited about this new course and the opportunity to take a course so unique, but relevant to today’s world. Upper School Student Daisy Lu said, “This course is not only interesting and different from any other computer science course Poly provides, but also it forces the students to think of what unique abilities they have that can’t be done by AI. It’s important to teach people that AI is very powerful and is starting to take over the world and we have to make sure that it doesn’t substitute our roles.” Therefore, the new Advanced AI, Ethics, and the Costs of Power opens doors for students to learn about a real-world issue and how to control it.