Predisciplinary AI
Deepak Kumar
Department of Mathematics & Computer Science
Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

Curriculum Descant
From ACM Intelligence Magazine
Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2001
ACM Press


In an earlier issue of this column, (Interdisciplinary AI, ACM Intelligence, Volume 11, Number 1, 2000) Richard Wyatt wrote:

Artificial intelligence, as a course offered within computer science programmes, should be an interdisciplinary course. Stated more carefully, the correct design for an undergraduate artificial intelligence course for a computer science department is such that it should be able to be taken by any student possessing good analytic skills but lacking programming skills. The interdisciplinary nature of a well-designed artificial intelligence course is not itself a goal of the preferred course design, but is a consequence of it.

Computer science programs are not the ideal training grounds for artificial intelligence. There are of course exceptions, but in general, computer science students lack an understanding of philosophical issues, ...

In short, artificial intelligence should be an interdisciplinary course and we, as instructors, should consciously conceive of it as such. ...

If we ourselves view our undergraduate artificial intelligence courses as interdisciplinary, it will mould our course design to benefit not only our own computer science students, but also students in our colleges in general. Artificial Intelligence needs as many smart people as we can get, from computer science and elsewhere.

Furthering these ideas, and not taking away anything from his proposals about the design of an undergraduate-level AI course, in this installment, I want to propose the idea of a pre-disciplinary course on AI for the freshman class. The proposal is based on a recent trend at most colleges of requiring the freshman class to enroll in one or more courses that emphasize writing and critical thinking skills. For instance, at Bryn Mawr college, we require all our incoming students to take two such courses, designated as College Seminars. I quote from the college's prospectus about a description of these courses:

The College Seminars are discussion-oriented, reading- and writing-intensive courses for first- and second-year students. Topics (of these courses) vary from year to year, but all seminars are designed and taught by faculty from several different fields and are intended to engage broad, fundamental issues and questions. These courses have a predisciplinary rather than an interdisciplinary intent: their aim is to revisit and revitalize questions that tend to be taken as settled by existing disciplines. Course materials include books and essays but also films, material objects, social practices, scientific observations and experiments.

For more information on this program, and specific course descriptions, visit the College Seminars website.

Inspired by sentiments expressed in the two pieces above, I would like to propose the creation of a pre-disciplinary writing intensive course that centers around the issues of artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind. Such a course can use a combination of materials taken from a selection of classic papers, videos of AI systems, movies (AI documentaries as well as Hollywood-style productions), and articles on AI as reported in the popular press. When team-taught by faculty from other disciplines, one quickly discovers an exciting array of readings that could be used to formulate the course content. I am also thinking of the book, HAL's Legacy: 2001's computer as dream and reality, Edited by David Stork, MIT Press 1997. Coupled with the movie, and additional related readings, I can see a fruitful freshman course on AI.

Without necessarily providing an introduction to computers and algorithms (if one wishes one can certainly do so), a pre-disciplinary course could engage students in lively discussions of what it means to be intelligent, the notions of machine intelligence, whether language has anything to do with thought, etc. Of course, it would be a challenge from getting bogged down with technical details and at the same time not fall prey to being considered "fluffy". Remember it is a pre-disciplinary freshman-level course. As AI researchers and educators we should all be up for such a task.

A pre-disciplinary course in AI can address several concerns expressed in Richard Wyatt's article, without necessarily taking anything away from the design of the upper-level introductory AI course. It also serves a nice challenge to us, who are mostly content 'staying within the discipline' for most of our academic teaching lives. Such a course is bound to create a better awareness about the discipline and perhaps even help attract students into computer science and AI. Regardless, the very process of engaging students into discussions on AI-related issues and having them write essays and critiques could make for an exciting course.


Fall 1997
Inaugural Installment of the new column.
(Deepak Kumar)

Summer 1998
Teaching about Embedded Agents
Using small robots in AI Courses
(Deepak Kumar)

Fall 1998
Robot Competitions as Class Projects
A report of the 1998 AAAI Robot Competition and how robot competitions have been successfully incorporated in the curriculum at Swarthmore College and The University of Arkansas
Lisa Meeden & Doug Blank)

Winter 1998
Nilsson's New Synthesis
A review of Nils Nilsson's new AI textbook
(Deepak Kumar)

Spring 1999
Pedagogical Dimensions of Game Playing
The role of a game playing programming exercise in an AI course
(Deepak Kumar)

Summer 1999
A New Life for AI Artifacts
A call for the use of AI research software in AI courses
(Deepak Kumar)

Fall 1999
Beyond Introductory AI
The possibility of advanced AI courses in the undergraduate curriculum
(Deepak Kumar)

January 2000
The AI Education Repository
A look back at AAAI's Fall 1994 Symposium on Improving the Instruction of Introductory AI and the resulting educational repository
(Deepak Kumar)

Spring 2000
Interdisciplinary AI
A challenge to AI instructors for designing a truly interdisciplinary AI course
(Richard Wyatt)

Summer 2000
Teaching "New AI"
Authors of a new text (and a new take) on AI present their case
(Rolf Pfeifer)

Fall 2000
Ethical and Social Implications of AI: Stories and Plays
Descriptions of thought provoking stories and plays that raise ethical and social issues concerning the use of AI
(Richard Epstein)

January 2001
How much programming? What kind?
A discussion on the kinds of programming exercises in AI courses
(Deepak Kumar)

Spring 2001
Predisciplinary AI
A follow-up to Richard Wyatt's column (above) and a proposal for a freshman-level course on AI
(Deepak Kumar)

Spring 2001
Machine Learning for the Masses
Machine Learning comes of age in undergraduate AI courses
(Clare Congdon)

About Curriculum Descant
Curriculum Descant has been a regular column in ACM's Intelligence magazine (formerly published as ACM SIGART's Bulletin). The column is edited by Deepak Kumar. The column features short essays on any topic relating to the teaching of AI from any one willing to contribute. If you would like to contribute an essay, please contact Deepak Kumar.