For these first-year students, writings from the past shed light on issues around today’s AI revolution

Jocelyn Granados, left, and Lilianna Rodriguez in a podcast studio at UCLA

Sean Brenner/UCLA Humanities

As part of the course, Jocelyn Granados (left), Lilianna Rodriguez and classmates learned how to use podcast technology in a DeNeve Learning Center lab.

Marta Wallien | June 12, 2024

One way to process how humans are responding to the AI revolution is to look at the way artists and writers have reacted to major technological shifts throughout recent history.

That’s the premise of a UCLA seminar that was offered for the first time this quarter, “Literary Anticipations: Consciousness, Memory and Technology Around the Globe.” The seminar, part of the year-long cluster course “Brain, Bodymind and Society: All In Your Head?,” provoked meaningful discussions on the nature of rapidly changing technology and the ways in which we interact with advances like artificial intelligence.

While the course material itself was traditional — articles, novels and plays were required reading — the final project required the first-year students to split into pairs to produce an original podcast episode.

“One of the reasons I wanted to offer this seminar is that it appears we’re in a race to tell what feels like a brand-new story,” said Jason Araújo, the UCLA comparative literature doctoral candidate who is leading the class. “Though it feels new, we’ve actually been dropped into the middle of something that is older, and I wanted students to explore that longer history and to complicate their initial understandings so they might be able to recognize recurring debates and themes.”

The class surveyed writing from the past 150 years, spanning the Americas, Europe, Oceania and Asia — giving students a broad perspective for how writers have reacted to new technology in their eras and geographies, and in some cases underscoring writers who seemed clairvoyant in their assessment of where technology might be headed. One of the course readings was Czech-language writer Karel Čapek’s 1920 play “R.U.R.,” which is believed to be the first work to use the term “robot.”

Assigning a podcast as the final project — students were asked to record a 10-minute episode on any topic related to the course material — seemed appropriate given the nature of the readings. “Academic writing can find other venues,” Araújo said. “What I like about the podcast genre is the way one can translate the complexities of the world and transmit information to a broader audience.”

For her podcast, Salena Thomas and a classmate explored language and consciousness in artificial intelligence to understand its symbiotic relationship with society.

“My partner is focusing on how language affects how we interact with AI, and I’m focusing on how we would be affected if AI develops a consciousness,” Thomas said. “Our project is about the dual influence that we have on AI and that AI has on us.”

Another student, Tara Kaviani, said she has appreciated the course’s hybrid approach to discussing technology.

“Conversations about AI tend to be either solely technical or, in the humanities community, solely philosophical,” she said. “I appreciated how this class wasn’t just technical but still allowed space for us to make these two sides speak to each other.”

Kaviani’s podcast focused on AI alignment research — the study of how artificial intelligence aligns with human values — a topic that she first learned about at a meeting of the AI Safety Club at UCLA.

Araújo said considering texts from the past century as part of a larger arc is one useful way to make sense of ChatGPT, Sora and other AI tools that are poised to transform the way we interact with and make sense the world around us.

“Essentially, I was hoping to give students a larger historical overview, because for many of us, it might feel like this AI revolution has no antecedent — that this is something unique in the history of the world,” he said. “But there are very interesting aspects and debates surrounding technology that are as old as dirt. It seems to me that we’ve been asking these questions a lot longer than the hype sometimes leads us to believe.”

Perspectives from the past

A portion of Jason Araújo’s reading list for the Literary Anticipations course:

  • Samuel Butler, “Darwin Among the Machines.” Newspaper article, New Zealand, 1863.
  • Karel Čapek, “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).” Play, Czechoslovakia, 1921.
  • Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel.” Short story, Argentina, 1941.
  • Stanisław Lem, “The Cyberiad.” Short story collection, Poland, 1965.
  • Wim Wenders, “Until the End of the World.” Film, France/Germany, 1991.
  • Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan, “AI 2041.” Nonfiction, China, 2021.