Meet the Fellows: 2019 Newcombe Fellow Tom Gilbert

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2019 class of Fellows includes Tom Gilbert, a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary field studies and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Tom traces his thinking on his topic:

I remember doing a jig, at age 16 or 17, with my pet turkey Starbuck one day after chores were done. He was a big bird, at least twenty pounds, and had a habit of gobbling when my father backed up the family truck to the barn to unload chicken feed or hay for our sheep flock. His eyes were black and unreflective, and I remember his paroxysmal, sneeze-like gobble, though that day our dance steps were in sync at least, as he courted Pequod, our pet turkey hen.

At that age, my daydreams were my reality. I named my favorite roosters after characters in The Brothers Karamazov, my turkeys after Moby-Dick. As my interests matured through college and two years in Europe studying Kierkegaard and Kant, I came to Berkeley to pursue graduate work in sociology. The one constant of my work has been the makeup of the self, how that makeup is in some way a product of history and the social ties and ideas one is seized by.

Artificial intelligence was always interesting to me, but it was not until graduate school that I began to appreciate it as a window for understanding the self. Like a whale, to take “intelligence” out of its natural environment (the world) and into an artificial setting is on some level to misunderstand and destroy it. Yet humans are artificial too: we invent tools and domesticate animals in order to lift ourselves out of the natural order and into some higher plane where agency, and thus ethics, becomes possible. To become aligned with one’s surroundings and be recognized by other beings is one of the self’s highest callings. Rather than facing the prospect of artificial intelligence with fear and anxiety, can we treat it as a mirror for our own nature?

Tom’s dissertation, titled From Automation to Autonomy: The Moral Psychology of Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence, examines the moral foundations and ethical stakes of autonomous artificial intelligence, in particular automated vehicle applications. For more information on the 2019 Newcombe Fellows, click here.



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