Geri Louise Dimas, Ph.D., opened her Fall Faculty Institute day session with a news clip that once would have been considered science fiction. In the video, Senator Richard Blumenthal opened a May 2023 Senate hearing on the dangers of artificial intelligence with a recording of his own voice discussing its potential risks. The clip sounded good, he admitted, but he couldn’t take credit. Instead, Blumenthal revealed the audio had itself been generated by an artificial intelligence program.
“It's not about if AI will change our future; it is changing our future,” said Dimas, an assistant professor of Information Systems and Analytics at Bryant University. “It's important that we have the tools and the discussions to decide our agency. AI is already impacting our society in a real way and will forever change how we operate as a society — which is why it's so important that we have the conversations now."
Organized by Bryant’s Academic Affairs and Information Services Divisions in collaboration with Microsoft Education and sponsored by The Davis Foundation, the university’s second annual Fall Faculty Institute brought together educators and staff from the College of Business, College of Arts and Sciences, and School of Health and Behavioral Sciences with industry experts to consider one of the signature issues of our age: How AI might be used, and governed, for the good of all.
“What we are seeing right now, we call it the ‘massification’ of artificial intelligence,” Rupendra Paliwal, Ph.D., Bryant’s Provost and Chief Academic Officer, noted in his opening remarks. “Whereas it was previously solely in the realm of folks who had technical expertise, this is now in all of our hands.”
Therefore, he argued, it is one of Bryant’s chief responsibilities to ensure that the next generation of leaders can rise to that challenge. “Our core mission as a university is to prepare our students for long-term success — and our faculty are at forefront of delivering that mission,” said Paliwal. “This is a growing field that touches every discipline. Therefore, the only way we can truly move forward is through collaboration.”
The Faculty Institute’s sessions ranged from examining how AI can help us to become more productive to considering how it might empower the future of research to looking at how we might steer away from looming — and potentially world-altering — pitfalls.
Here are some key takeaways from the forum:
There is a light side and a dark side
“There is one thing that is true about generative AI. It'll produce whatever you want,” observed Rob Curtin, director of Worldwide Higher Education at Microsoft, during the institute’s keynote session — and that’s both a blessing and a curse. The session, a panel moderated by Paliwal and Suhong Li, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems and Analytics, saw Curtin and Dino Ciccone, Azure Solution Specialist at Microsoft, discuss the state of AI, its implementations, and the implications of those implementations.
AI, they suggested, can be a democratizing force, leveling a range of playing fields. However, that access can also cause problems. Curtin cited the example of “Tay,” an artificial intelligence chatbot modeled after a 14-year-old girl that was released into the wild via social media to learn from her fellow Twitter users. The precocious bot, however, quickly fell victim to trolls and bad actors and adopted their worst characteristics. “She was not someone any parent would be proud of within 24 hours,” Curtin noted drolly. To avoid future Tays, Curtin stated, we need to train our digital children well, and develop rules and systems of governance to ensure the right models are being followed.
As AI becomes more prevalent, every government, every institution, and every individual needs to decide how they’ll use it responsibly, stated Curtin. “You can't absolve yourself.”
Being AI savvy is a moving target
Allison Papini, assistant director and manager of research and instruction for Bryant’s Douglas and Judith Krupp Library, and Nafees Qamar, Ph.D., associate professor and Healthcare Informatics director in the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, led an interactive session where attendees examined their attitudes toward AI in the classroom.
They also discussed the changing role of information literacy in a world where AI can be a timesaving but potentially unreliable shortcut — and how to ensure that digital native students develop the tools to become information savvy. “This is the generation that grew up with Wikipedia,” Papini noted.
“The human component of inspiration will always be there out of necessity; it has to be. But by introducing this potential tool, we can help students understand how to use it smartly, efficiently, and correctly.”
As with any new technology, best practices regarding AI are constantly evolving, the pair said. “One of the common answers to a lot of questions is going to be, ‘it depends,’” Papini admitted. “Authority is sometimes constructed and contextual.” In such a case, she said, it’s incumbent upon all of us to stay abreast of our fields, keep asking questions, and keep having discussions.
Familiarity with AI is going from a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have"
In a session facilitated by Veronica Stewart, Bryant’s interim director of career services. Melissa Hortman, account technology strategist for research at Microsoft, discussed how AI is changing the way we work across a variety of industries and how educators can help students prepare for that future.
“It's not those who leverage AI that are going to be in the news, it's going to be those who don’t,” noted Hortman. A new generation of consumers will be expecting companies to make use of AI tools to their fullest extent as they come out, and companies — and employees — that can’t keep up will be left in the dust as business moves to the companies that can. “This is the kind pressure that we're hearing about across all industries. It will be a transformative time for everyone,” Hortman observed.
AI can augment what we do, but should never be a replacement
Learning to write well is one of the most important skills a school can impart, and mastering that skill involves using all of the tools at our disposal, suggested Assistant Professor of Information Systems and Analytics ML Tlachac, Ph.D.; Assistant Professor of Information Systems and Analytics Tingting Zhao, Ph.D.; and Terri Hasseler, Ph.D., director of Bryant’s Center for Teaching Excellence and professor of History, Literature, and Art. In their session, “Essays in the Age of ChatGPT,” the trio teamed up to discuss the role generative AI can play in successful writing, walking the audience through a tutorial on how educators can mindfully incorporate AI into a writing-based class to maximize student learning. AI can have uses from editing to idea generation, Hasseler suggested, but it's important for students to know its strengths and weakness, and to avoid overly relying on it. “We don't want them to lose that kind of exploratory ‘aha’ moment that happens when they put to page the things that they're thinking and feeling about something,” she noted.
“The human component of inspiration will always be there out of necessity; it has to be,” agreed Zhao. “But by introducing this potential tool, we can help students understand how to use it smartly, efficiently, and correctly.”