Artificial Intelligence and Society

Sarah Lawrence College
Fall 2020

Course Description

In recent years the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has made astonishing technical progress, and has begun to assume an increasingly widespread and important role in society. AI systems can now (at least to some extent) drive cars; recognize human faces, speech, and gestures; diagnose diseases; control autonomous robots; instantly translate text from one language to another; beat world-champion human players at chess, Go, and other games; and perform many other amazing feats that just a few decades ago were only possible within the realm of science fiction. This progress has led to extravagant expectations, claims, hopes, and fears about the future of AI technology and its potential impact on society. In this course, we will attempt to peer beyond the hype, and to come to grips with both the promise and the peril of AI. We will consider AI from many angles, including historical, philosophical, ethical, and public policy perspectives. We will also examine many of the technical concepts and achievements of the field in detail, as well as its many failures and setbacks. Throughout the course, students will be asked to read texts, write responses, do follow-up research, and participate in classroom discussions. This is not a programming course, and no background in computer programming is expected or required.

Open to any interested student.


Prof. Jim Marshall
Office: Ilchman Science Center 100
Phone: 2673 (from off campus: 914-395-2673)
Email: j + my last name +

Class Meeting Times (Online)

Course Structure and Expectations

This course is predominantly a discussion seminar, and as students, you will all share in the responsibility for its success. I will expect significant amounts of reading, thinking, written analysis, and class participation from you. I want everyone to participate at least once in every class; I want everyone to want to participate; and I want everyone to want everyone to participate. We will be examining many interesting facets of Artificial Intelligence together this semester — some of which I may not even be very familiar with myself! You should be prepared to actively investigate the topics we discuss, to do follow-up research outside of class, to give short presentations in class on your findings, and to express yourself clearly and respectfully in our class discussions. I'll expect you to come to class prepared to discuss the readings, having thought about the ideas in advance, and to post short written responses to the readings on our MySLC discussion board. We will also have some longer writing assignments as well, but no exams. Your postings, presentations, and papers will be evaluated for their clarity, organization, and thoroughness. A major objective of the course is for you to strengthen your written and oral communication skills, and to sharpen your critical thinking abilities.

Online Classroom Environment

Our course this semester will be conducted synchronously online via Zoom, so you should read through the Zoom information for students provided by the SLC Help Desk. Most of the time, I will encourage everyone to keep their web camera turned on during class. This will help me to get to know everyone more quickly. If you would prefer that others not see your local surroundings, you might consider using a Zoom virtual background or customizing your Zoom profile to show a picture of yourself. Other things to keep in mind:


It is difficult to have a successful seminar class if students don't show up, so on-time attendance is expected for all class meetings. Although I realize that missing class sometimes cannot be avoided, you may receive reduced course credit if you miss more than 3 classes or conferences. If you are unable to attend class or conference, please contact me about it as soon as possible.


I will often send out announcements to the class through email, so you are required to check your Sarah Lawrence email account at least once per day. I will use your address because it is reliable and easy to remember. You should also check the course web page frequently for homework assignments and other updates. I will be happy to answer your questions by email and will try to respond as quickly as possible to messages that pertain to the course.


The focal point of our course this semester will be the book Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans, by Melanie Mitchell, which was published in October 2019. The book gives an excellent, up-to-date, and largely non-technical overview of the current state of AI. In addition to reading and discussing the entire book, we will use it as a jumping-off point for more in-depth explorations of various AI-related topics. I will also assign many other supplemental readings throughout the semester, such as online articles, reports, excerpts from other books, newspaper articles, and so on. These will be made available as the semester progresses.

You must have a copy of the book by the first week of class (or at least have ordered one). Either a print or electronic version is fine. The book is available through the SLC Bookstore, or you can click on the book image below for links to various online vendors.

Conference Work

I will hold individual conference meetings with students online via Zoom. I am open to many ideas for your conference work, but one suggestion would be for you to choose some topic related to the course material that especially interests you (subject to my approval), research it thoroughly, and write a 15-20 page paper about it. For example, you could focus on some relatively narrow technical aspect of AI, or on some broader sociological, ethical, legal, or political issue that AI is likely to bring about, exacerbate, or otherwise impact in a significant way. If you go this route, I will expect you to develop an annotated bibliography of books, articles, web sites, etc. on your topic and to do in-depth background reading on your own. The quality and clarity of your writing, and the depth of your analysis, will play a major role in the evaluation of your project. In addition, each student should plan on giving a brief presentation of their conference work to the class (via Zoom) at the end of the semester.

Reasonable Accommodations

If you have a disability that may interfere with your ability to participate in the activities, coursework, or assessment of the objectives of this course, or any of your other courses, you may be entitled to reasonable accommodations. Please contact Polly Waldman, Associate Dean of Studies and Disabilities Services located in Westlands 116. You may also call Disability Services at 914-395-2235 or email pwaldman at Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, all students, with or without disabilities, are entitled to equal access to the programs and activities of Sarah Lawrence College and the College will make reasonable accommodations when appropriate and necessary.

Academic Honesty

The highest level of academic integrity is expected of every student. You are strongly encouraged to discuss ideas and approaches to solving problems, on a general level, with your fellow classmates, but all of your written work must be exclusively your own. Effective learning is compromised when this is not the case. Always credit your sources using accepted standards for citation, quotation, and attribution. This also goes for any information obtained via the Internet. If you are ever unsure about what constitutes acceptable collaboration or how to appropriately cite a source, just ask. You should carefully read the College's official Policy on Academic Integrity in your Student Handbook. Failure to abide by these rules is considered plagiarism, and will result in severe penalties, including possible failure in the course. Please do not put me, yourself, or anyone else in this unpleasant situation!