Freshmen Seminar

Science, Technology and Culture:

Artificial Intelligence and Science Fiction


Anne Balsamo, Emma Bowring and Milind Tambe


January 2007



“Science fiction like Star Trek is not only good fun, but serves a serious purpose, that of expanding human imagination”                                                             Physicist Stephen Hawking



Mission: Using science fiction as its core component, this interdisciplinary seminar aims to introduce Freshmen students to the relationship between science, technology and culture through an investigation of the development of the science/engineering of Artificial Intelligence (AI).  The scientific material of the course will include discussion of AI’s goals, the current state of the art of research, and and introduction to fundamental concepts and techniques (which include concepts about computing paradigms, languages, systems, and architecture). Course materials also include a selection of science fiction novels, films and short stories that demonstrate: 1) the concept of the technological imagination; 2) the process whereby this imagination is shaped by culture (i.e., fiction and film), and 3) the results of the technological imagination-in-action: the formation of a scientific/engineering research program on AI and the design of AI experiments and demonstrations.


This course will provide a platform for the unique interdisciplinary collaboration of faculty from the school of Engineering (Computer Science Department) and the School of Cinema-Television (Interactive Media Division).


Why AI?  While a new generation of students has grown up with myth of AI and robots in block-buster movies, real AI programs have continued their dramatic gains, from beating the world chess champion, to autonomously driving the Mars rovers, to controlling the mundane: our vacuum cleaners and washers/driers. This all-round impact of AI programs in daily life will increase. It is thus important for students to understand key underlying concepts of AI, as well as its current and future social and cultural implications.  Furthermore, as appropriate for Freshmen seminar course, it provides a key opportunity to discuss some fundamental questions, such as: what is the nature of intelligence?  What differentiates humans from AI programs?  What is the relationship, more broadly, among science, technological innovations, and culture?


Why Science Fiction? Many science studies scholars have argued that new technologies are created in the imagination first.  Science fiction (in all its forms, i.e., literature, film, television, popular culture) is the pre-eminent cultural domain of imaginative narratives about technological possibilities.  Many contemporary technologists openly acknowledge the influence of science fiction narratives on their choice and conception of technological projects.   Indeed, from the beginning of the genre-fication of science fiction (starting with Hugo Gernsback’s pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, that first labeled the genre, “scientifiction”), the intent of the popularization of technology stories was inspire an interest in science and technology (engineering, chemistry, etc) among young people.  This was done for important cultural reasons—first, in the early 1900s, as a way to stimulate the relocation of farm boys to urban centers of industry, and later (in the 1940s-50s) to provoke interest among American children in space and science so that the USSR would not win a hegemony based on its early victory in the space race.


The Unique Advantages of Inter-disciplinarity:  Traditional engineering courses in AI focus purely on its deep technical underpinnings, but an interdisciplinary course in AI enables us to provide students with an appropriate framework for a discussion of its ethical and societal implications, its promises and pitfalls.  It should provoke discussion about the deeper questions regarding the cultural, social, and global impact of this exciting field.  There is a great need for such an interdisciplinary treatment of AI, and we would be in a unique position of offering this course by bringing together faculty with different areas of expertise.


Seminar Materials


Readings, Films, and Art Works:

Ralph 124c41+, Hugo Gernsback (1911)

Robot Visions, Isaac Asimov (1990)

Bladerunner, Ridley Scott (1982)


Cultural Analysis and Criticism:

Selections from:  I’m Working on That:  A Trek from Science Fiction to Science Fact, William Shatner and Chip Walker, (2002)


“Getting Out of the Gernsback Continuum,” Andrew Ross, Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits (1991).


Computer Science Readings:



The novels assigned in this seminar offer speculative narratives about “nature” of artificially intelligent machines. Among the science fictional devices first described by Hugo Gernsback that are now real devices are the Language Rectifier (the first reference to machine-translation of human languages) and Personalized News (first reference to news that is customized to the needs of each individual subscriber).   Isaac Asmiov is well-known for inventing the three-laws of robotics that govern the relationship between human and intelligent machines.



Course Meetings/Topics


·        Week 1: (JAN 9) [Anne]

Key Themes in Science Fiction: A Brief History of the Future

·        How to Read Science Fiction

·        Brief History of Science Fiction Film

·        Group discussion: We will have groups discuss small excerpts from sci-fi stories; and then in the end make a presentation. (I remain unclear exactly what these presentations or discussions will try to capture from the sci-fi story, i.e. are they are trying to look for something in the story?).



·        Shatner and Walker, I’m Working on that: A Trek from Science Fiction to Science Fact (selections)




·        Week 2: (JAN 16) [Anne, but Emma and Milind come in at the end]

The relationship between science fiction and technological culture

·        Where science fiction has predicted and inspired science in general

·        Preparation for the trial of commander Data (to be held during week 3)


      Readings for week 3:

·        Searle’s “Minds, brains and programs”

·        Nagel’s “What it’s like to be a bat?”

·        Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” – common counterarguments are presented.

·        Roger Penrose “Can a computer have a mind”

·        Columns and stories from the Asimov book



·        Week 3: (JAN 23) [Anne, Emma, Milind]

Trial of commander data? Create four teams: Each team will be assigned to argue either the pro or con of one of these two issues:


                     i.            What is an agent (discussion or trial)?

                   ii.            Is commander Data self-aware? sentient? 

                  iii.            Does Commander Data have rights? If Data creates art, who owns it? If Data kills someone, who is responsible?

    We will suggest extra sources. Chocolates for anyone bringing in extra material. Chocolates for the winners of the trial. Winners determined by secret ballot.






·        Week 4: (JAN 30) [Emma or Milind]

Key Themes in the Science of Artificial Intelligence: A Brief History of a Field

      What is Artificial Intelligence

      Evolution of Artificial Intelligence research from 1956 (first AI conference)

      What are the fields key achievements?

       What has the field learned so far?

       Interesting parallel in development of AI and in Science fiction



·        Week 5: (Feb 6) [Emma] (Milind cannot attend)

      Topics in Artificial Intelligence Research

           Fundamental techniques: Planning          

           à Means ends planning

           à Reactive agents

           Planning vs reactivity, commitments


·        Week 6: (Feb 13) [Emma or Milind]

      Topics in Artificial Intelligence Research

            Fundamental techniques: Learning

           à With teacher: Decision tree

           à Without teacher: Clustering

           à With reinforcement



·        Bladerunner: We will have two showings of this movie; hopefully at least one most students will be able to attend and the second just in case not everyone can see that first showing.


·        Week 7: (Feb 20) [Anne]

Discussion of “BladeRunner”


·        Week 8: (Feb 27) [Emma or Milind]

      Topics in Artificial Intelligence Research

             Fundamental techniques: Reasoning with Uncertainty

             Decision theory = probability theory + utility theory

             BDI vs Decision theory


·        Week 9: (March 6) [Emma or Milind]

      Topics in Artificial Intelligence Research

             Fundamental techniques: Social intelligence (towards multiagent reasoning)




            Ross, “Getting out of the Gernsback Continuum”


*************SPRING BREAK**************



·        Week 10: (March 20) [Anne]

Gernsback continuum?

Some have predicted dire consequences of technology; what will arise?


·        Week 11: (March 27) [Anne, Emma, Milind]



Students do the readings and have a panel discussion that discusses issues of social intelligence, privacy, safety, cultural issues, norms. The key is that the panel should require students to exercise what they have learned in class.




Grading Pass/Fail based on:


·        Attendance (two absences maximum)


·        Must contribute in the Trial of Commander Data (must prepare half page writeup and speak during the trial)


·        Must participate during the panel on March 27


·        General class participation (must writeup half page for the panel and speak during the panel)