The Rise of the Machines

October 08, 2021

Professor of Sociology Karla Erickson explores artificial intelligence in her research and teaching and involves students throughout.

I/Robot. If you’re a science fiction fan, that title probably reminds you of author Isaac Asimov and his Three Laws of Robotics.

In this case, I/Robot is the name of a 2-credit, special topic, short course offered in spring 2021.

Its central question: How will/have our relationships to machines change our relationship to other humans?

To say that Grinnell students eagerly signed up for it is putting it mildly. There was space for 30 students — 60 signed up and 20 more tried to get in.

“That was pretty wild,” says Karla Erickson, professor of sociology. “I didn’t expect that level of student enthusiasm.” This introductory course is based on her ongoing research in artificial intelligence.

Erickson is a labor ethnographer who usually studies people doing work that’s not very visible, such as restaurant staff and nursing home caregivers.

We talked with her about her research, the importance of students to her work, and how this class came about.

How did you get interested in artificial intelligence to begin with?

Erickson: I’m interested in the labor consequences of not having human truck drivers anymore… [and] in the self-driving trucks. Because when these things get on the road, they’re going to be in Iowa first.

As I got into it, I thought, I’ve got to know about machine learning and artificial intelligence…. [Then] I thought, wait. A book about self-driving trucks would be completely irresponsible at this point because we’re already so far down the road.

I was coming to realize that a lot of the work that we currently do is all automatable already, including radiology, legal clerking, all kinds. I can’t have this be about one industry. That would be tone-deaf. This is really about automating us.

So now I don’t just talk about trucks, I talk about really simple devices, like the iWatch…. Machines are interacting with us for more minutes of the day and in ever-increasing ways throughout our lives.

I’m not interested in the question of … when the robots are going to come for us because they’re already with us. They’re just not coming in the form that we thought. We thought it would be a more dramatic form. It’s actually rather a subtle form.

I’m interested in helping students develop their sociological imagination in relationship to machines. I want students to be able to look at machines and ask the same kinds of questions that we ask about human intent and outcomes and discrimination, just all the things that we think about in regard to humans. Because we spend so much time with [machines].

How did your short course come about?

Erickson: For me, teaching a class becomes a good way to find out what the story arc of the book is. I think, “What do [students] need to know so that we can get where I want to get in terms of the sociology of machines?” When I do that, it often helps me determine the shape of the book itself.

On my last book, How We Die Now, 26 students worked on [it] at different stages. They helped me develop the theoretical foundations; they did the ethnographic research with me; they helped me analyze the data. My work is very iterative, both with my classes and with undergraduates themselves.

With this [AI] project, it’s so important to have undergraduates [involved]. It’s important to have intergenerational conversations about devices, right? Because I can’t be writing about this from the perspective of a 48-year-old. It’s just changing too quickly.

[Students] have a kind of intuition about some of these devices that you and I basically can’t have because of when we were born. We remember a time before these devices. So it’s super useful to have smart, young people engaged in this.

You received the 2020–21 faculty fellowship from the Center for the Humanities. What role did that award have with your research and short course?  

Erickson: When Caleb Elfenbein became the center’s director, he and the board found this way of spotlighting scholars — through a fellowship that especially centers the humanities. This is important, I think, because professors at Grinnell are very dedicated teachers, and so sometimes we forget to highlight the scholarly work we all also do. This fellowship, as I understand it, draws attention to local expertise, turning the spotlight on our scholars on campus.

[Also,] I’m certain students don’t look at a robot and think that’s a humanistic question. So they need a little bit of help knowing that.

What [the fellowship] allowed me to do was teach this class a little sooner than I would have. That’s what’s so great about it. It bought me out of half of a class and it gave me some research time that I was going to use to go and observe robots, but obviously I couldn’t do that with the pandemic.

I also got to do a virtual, public talk [in April 2021], which was helpful, because the talk will probably be the introduction to my book. Also, I feel like some of our work is not very visible, the scholarship part, and this kind of makes it visible.

You’re teaching more courses based on this research?

Erickson: Yes, a fall 2021 First-Year Tutorial called I/Robot: The Social Life of Machines (and Humans) and a 4-credit 200-level special topic course in spring 2022, Sociology of Robots.

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