Q. IIT-H’s Department of Liberal Arts offers a minor in ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Humanity’. What was the specific vision behind launching this inter-disciplinary program?
There are two axes around which we have imagined this minor.
One is substantive: AI is becoming an increasingly important topic of discussion, both nationally and internationally. A lot of resources are currently being devoted to research and development in the field of AI, investing in the hope of AI as the technology of the future that will have an array of practical applications with far-reaching implications. AI is projected to transform everything from governance to finance to healthcare. At the same time, there are also those who worry about the social, political, and ethical implications of deploying artificial intelligence. There is significant scholarship now, for example, that has demonstrated how algorithms can reify various kinds of gendered, racial, and socio-economic biases. There is also significant concern about large-scale employment that is largely driven by the kinds of automation that the new wave of AI technologies is projected to enable. One motivation for our minor, therefore, is to introduce students to these issues. Many of our students will be actively involved in designing these technologies: the minor aims to sensitize students to broader societal discussions about AI that are already well underway.
A second motivation for the minor is to sharpen critical thinking and analytical skills for our students. The educational curriculum at IITH is grounded in the Liberal Arts model: like many international universities, engineering students at IITH have to also undertake substantial course work in Liberal Arts and Creative Arts. The idea here is to broaden students’ perspectives beyond narrow disciplinary specializations. With the AI & Humanity minor, we aim to introduce students to a broad array of critical thinking and analytical skills from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.
Q. How are the students in IIT – Hyderabad benefiting from taking-up the minor in AI & Humanity? Has there been any difference in terms of hiring?
We are still only finishing the first year of our minor offering (the minor program is envisioned overall as a two-year program). So, these are early days still for us to say anything about the difference that the minor has made in terms of hiring. That said, we have received quite a lot of enthusiastic response about the minor, including from industry partners who are potential employers for our students. At a more immediate level, student response to minor courses has been positive as well: our courses help student understand the social, political, and ethical implications of their design practices, questions that they otherwise do not get an opportunity to think about.
“We live in an era of complex challenges. Interdisciplinary addresses the issue: for example, solving a complex condition such as increasing asthma prevalence means we simultaneously account for sources of air pollutants, while also find how some groups—e.g. children and the elderly—may be more vulnerable.”
Q. What parameters should a student consider, while taking up an inter-disciplinary course in graduation level?
I think students should try to understand how particular courses—whether discipline-based or interdisciplinary—help them their goals. Interdisciplinary has been the norm across various academic fields for quite some time now. So, even curricula based in traditional disciplines across the humanities, social science, natural sciences, and various engineering fields have evolved greatly to include newer courses and methodologies. Coding and computing skills, for example, are not just the forte of computer scientists and engineers anymore; they are now relevant across disciplines. And students likely get exposed to these subjects over the course of their education. Sometimes, if there is sufficient momentum and general interest, some subjects spin off into separate fields in their own right. Nanotechnology is a case in point, for example, where several departments offer programs specifically focused on that topic. In an earlier era, Computer Science and Engineering similarly emerged out of existing disciplines then. In the present moment, Artificial Intelligence is another such example. So, the question really isn’t whether to be interdisciplinary or not. We are all always already interdisciplinary.
Having said that, it remains important still to understand how particular degrees get credentialzed and recognized across a diversity of stakeholders. Will somebody with a degree in Sustainability Studies, for instance, be able to write the requisite qualifying examinations for further education in their fields? Will industry partners and other potential employers recognize interdisciplinary degrees in their hiring? In this regard, established disciplines that have a long history have an advantage: their curricula are more easily recognizable. In the case of newer interdisciplinary curricula, the onus to create a supporting ecosystem within which graduates pursuing those degrees can thrive is partly on the institutions that are offering them.
Q. Do you have any plans to introduce more inter-disciplinary courses in the coming years for students at IIT – Hyderabad?
I think it’s fair to expect a number of different interdisciplinary courses, both at the Bachelor’s as well as the Master’s level, to be offered at IITH in the coming years. Our department is in the process of launching a new MA program in Development Studies starting the next academic year. We also have plans afoot to launch a new M Tech program in Climate Change and Sustainability Engineering. We have already announced a new B Tech Program in Artificial Intelligence starting next academic year as well. I expect this trend to continue accelerating, both at IITH and beyond.
Q. “Inter-disciplinary courses are designed to illuminate principles, methods, and skills that cross disciplinary boundaries. These are intended for students whose interests do not conform to standard academic programs.” As such, do you find a huge scope for Inter-disciplinary courses in India?
We live in an era with unprecedented complex challenges, such as those of climate change. Addressing these demand collaborative and interdisciplinary orientation: for example, addressing a complex condition such as increasing asthma prevalence means that we simultaneously account for sources of air pollutants, how they travel through the atmosphere (perhaps with the help of computer models), their bodily uptake, design of urban spaces, transportation policies, and ways in which some groups—e.g. children and the elderly—may be more vulnerable to the risks of air pollution than others. Achieving such integration is no small task: being able to work across disciplines calls for critical attention to how data and knowledge is produced and validated across a very diverse set of disciplines. This is where well-thought out interdisciplinary curricula can make a big difference, in India as well as globally. The challenges that we face certainly demand that kind of capacity.