AI, Justice, Imagination: Technology and Speculative Fiction

EXP-0014-S | Spring 2020, Tufts University Experimental College
Janet Zong York and Jonathan Zong, Visiting Lecturers

This hybrid theory-practice course invites students to consider artificial intelligence’s socio-political consequences through both technical and humanistic perspectives.

  • How do society and culture inflect the way data and automation are designed and understood?
  • In what ways do ubiquitous data, measurement, and surveillance reinforce tacit ideas about justice, identity, and even the nature of reality itself?
  • What role does literature play in helping readers to understand the conditions shaping AI’s rise and to seek alternative possibilities to what might be assumed or elided now?

This course explores how fiction’s imagined worlds facilitate the reflection, and potential activism, that AI issues necessitate in relation to ethics, governance, and power. Readings pair fiction (novels, short stories, television, interactive media) with computer science and social science scholarship on AI and data, current events, and cultural criticism.

We will juxtapose developing our foundation in theoretical frameworks with hands-on projects: creating datasets, visual storytelling with data, exploring AI training sets, traditional textual analysis, writing op-eds from the future, and interactive presentations. Synthesizing across disciplines, students will gain new critical models with which to think about technical systems’ risks and benefits, while developing the technical language and cultural vocabulary with which to propose alternatives.

What you learn

The goal of the course is to provide you with opportunities to:

  • Formulate an interdisciplinary perspective on AI through multiple theoretical frameworks grounded in technical and humanistic perspectives.
  • Identify, review, frame, and understand AI issues raised by various academic and popular sources.
  • Construct and explain logical arguments about AI in relation to significant issues in studies of technology, data ethics, literature, culture, and society.
  • Initiate and complete a creative research project that shows significant understanding of an aspect of how technology and speculative fiction intersect or mutually illuminate.
  • Collaborate with peers to expand communication skills in listening and speaking clearly in discussion.
  • Cultivate an understanding of media and technology literacy, as well as how big data is collected, processed, and used.
  • Develop a personal vocabulary to analyze broad concepts: justice, data, and ethics, among others.
  • Draw connections between fictive imaginings of different worlds and AI as a social artifact that has implications for humanity across cultures.

About the instructors

Janet Zong York is a PhD candidate in the English department at Harvard. Her research and teaching interests include race/ethnicity in 20th-21st c. American literature, transnational American literature, and pedagogies and institutions of world literature. Her writing has been published in the Journal of Transnational American Studies.

Jonathan Zong is a researcher and visual artist pursuing a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). He is interested in how socio-technical systems make bodies legible to other and non bodies. His work has been published in Slate and at the ACM CSCW conference. He is a 2019 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow.