Writer and filmmaker James Barrat, author of “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era,” discussed the prospect of artificial intelligence with students and members of the Durham community on Wednesday night in the Memorial Union Building Strafford Room.  

The event was organized by the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, the Society of Women Engineers and Tau Beta Pi. Students from each organization were present, yet there were numerous outliers as well. 

Junior psychology, philosophy and justice studies major Gordon Unzen found interest primarily in the ethics of artificial intelligence, with his philosophy classes has been a major drive for his attendance.   

“We typically delve into subjects like this debating the future of humanity,” he said.  

Barrat began his lecture on defining artificial intelligence. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, artificial intelligence (AI) is defined as “the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that would normally require human intelligence.”  

Getting everyone on the same page was Barrat’s first objective. He then proceeded to reassure those nervous and frightened in the audience.  

“Sure, it’s a problem,” Barrat said. “But if we have the willpower and foresight to tackle this, we will be okay.”  

Barrat furthered his discussion by comparing artificial intelligence to an event horizon of a black hole.  

“Ultimately, we are going to go into it,” he said. “We can’t see into it but we can debate how we can manage it. We can’t go back.”  

What he means is that AI will continue to progress; we cannot go back to a time without AI. However, we can debate on how to effectively manage it and make it work for us.  

Speaking to those in the job market, Barrat stressed the type of jobs students should consider for the future.  

“Do not train for jobs that will be taken by computers or automation, and do train for jobs that only people can do,” he said. 

Any job that requires repetitive tasks, such as retail, driving, legal analysis and even some medical professions could be replaced by AI, as their tasks require repetitive and sequential action. On the contrary, careers that require emotional intelligence, such as a social worker, a teacher or a salesperson will most likely keep their profession.  

Barrat held a Q&A with the audience after the lecture, answering numerous questions involving ethics and contemporary issues affecting our daily lives regarding AI. Though turnout to the lecture was modest, the audience was highly engaged with the subject matter, with some even attempting to debate Barrat on his argument.  

Patrick Chang, the president of Tau Beta Pi and Kyle Sanders, the vice president of Tau Beta Pi, both seniors, were present at the event. 

Both believe it is crucial for everyone of all majors to understand the implications of artificial intelligence and its impact on our lives. Sanders briefly touched upon the growing presence of AI in the home.  

“Moving forward it will have a crucial role in our lives in our ‘smart’ society,” he said.   

Nearly every copy of Barrat’s book provided was sold to attendees, and Barrat stayed after the event to sign copies.  

Those interested in further reading can find Barrat’s book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and his personal website