Professors debate over AI – Useful tool or dangerous design?

Artificial intelligence has been stirring up mounds of controversy over the past few years because of its increasingly rapid rate of development.

Many speculate what implications this could have on the future of certain careers, particularly those in creative and artistic fields. Accompanying this is the development of AI now becoming more prominent in education institutions, specifically at the University of Rhode Island.

This has come in the form of Adobe, a software company that launched their new program last year titled Firefly as a platform to generate AI art, along with implementing AI into its other softwares like Premiere and Photoshop. The Harrington School of Communication and Media teaches and uses these softwares on a regular basis, which in turn creates a new dilemma, primarily regarding the question of how the school would view and handle this.

“Ultimately, I think that they’re tools,” Jason Jaacks, a journalism professor in the Harrington School, said. “They’re tools that present a real danger, but at the end of the day they’re still tools.”

Jaacks believes that AI can be dangerous if used as a crutch, but he is optimistic that it has the ability to be useful in pushing out work more efficiently. Jaacks also showed off a project he was working on in which he used AI generated art from Photoshop.

“It would take me a day, day-in-a-half, to animate this and get this all together,” Jaacks said. “Instead what I did was go into Photoshop and clicked ‘Generate a Background,’ like an antique paper background, and boom it’s there.”

However, there is still the issue of abusing an asset like this. Last year, another AI software called ChatGPT gained a considerable amount of attention from faculty members who believed students could use the software to cheat in their classes, but for Adobe’s it’s a completely different playing field. “I don’t know if you’re going to see photographers now who are going to start generating a body of work,” Jaacks said.

Jaacks said he was open to the idea of teaching AI in his classes, possibly even sometime this semester, and he’s not the only one who feels this way.

“We have to embrace it. It’s here and we can’t try to shut our eyes against it,” Indrani Mandal, a professor of computer science, said.

Mandal discussed her plan of integrating AI modules and assignments into her standard classes. She is also a lead member of the University’s own AI Lab which operates in the library.

“My role in the AI Lab allows us to develop workshops… that could be images, text, videos, etcetera,” Mandal said. “The idea is that we will not only teach our students how to use AI, but make an impact on them to use it responsibly.”

Working alongside her is Lucas Riccitelli, a computer science major who works as an intern at the AI Lab.

“I like to think of it as a tutor,” he said. “It’s always there to answer a question for you. Instead of having to surf through eight different websites to find something that I need, it will just give me an example of how to create a certain function or show the right way to go about it.”

Mandal is optimistic but cautious about what opportunities that AI can provide for others and her own career further down the line. She placed great emphasis on teaching students to use these technologies responsibly. She also mentioned that this dilemma is nothing new and brought up previous fears of new technology influencing students’ learning.

“When Google searches came out everybody thought about how we were going to combat cheating, but we found ways to combat it,” Mandal said.

Riccitelli too feels that AI being present in people’s careers is inevitable but that it shouldn’t be something everyone should fear.

“I think it’s going to be a more beneficial tool rather than what a lot of people say is a tool that takes over people’s jobs,” Riccitelli said. “I think it will be more of just trying to adapt to the AI and figure out ways to benefit.”

For now, URI and many other educational institutions are handling AI with caution and care, but as for what effect it will have on society- only time will tell.

The University’s AI Lab is hosting several events and workshops over the next few weeks and these will be located on the first floor of Carothers Library near the Launch Lab. For more information check out the Lab’s page on the URI website.