Honors 184-13: Subhuman, Superhuman, Robot: Humanity in the Age of Machines (2002)

Course Description

In this seminar we will explore the following questions: What would it take for a robot to be considered a person?  Is such a development technologically possible?  Are consciousness and emotions as we humans know them uniquely and solely available to the human species?  Can a robot have rights?  What do history and mythology reveal about the words “subhuman” (animals, depravity, madness) and “superhuman” (heros, geniuses, gods and goddesses)?  What light does this subhuman/superhuman dichotomy shed on the boundary between human and machine?  And finally, the most practical question of all: How much control do we have over the direction in which science and technology are taking our civilization?

Our approach will be interdisciplinary, encompassing developments in the natural sciences, technology, socioeconomic change, politics, popular culture, and philosophy.

The course will be divided into five thematic parts:

I. What’s at stake?

II. What are the possibilities?

III. Where do the limits lie?

IV. Blurring boundaries

V. Where do I stand in the ongoing debate?


* Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind

* Alan Wolfe, The Human Difference: Animals, Computers, and the Necessity of Social Science

* George Dyson, Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence

* Additional reading selections on the web and on reserve in Central Library

Assignments, Grading

You should always finish each day’s assigned reading before class meets on Tuesday or Thursday.  In order to carry out a satisfying discussion, it is essential that all students come to class well-prepared to contribute their thoughts and observations.  I encourage you to take notes on the readings as you go along; this will help you considerably when you are writing your research paper.

Each student will be assigned two class sessions during the semester in which he or she will be asked to start off the discussion with a 10-15 minute analytical report on that day’s reading.  Each student will also make a 15-minute in-class presentation late in the semester, based on the findings of his or her research paper.

There will be no examinations in this course.  Written assignments will include five one-page (single-spaced) reaction papers to major portions of the assigned reading.  The culminating assignment for the course will be an 8-10 page research paper on some aspect of the Human/Machine boundary debate.  Late assignments will be penalized at the rate of 5% per day.

Semester grades will be determined according to the following percentages:

Discussion participation:             20%

1-page papers: 5% each x 5 =    25%

Research paper                                                 55%

All assignments for this course will be governed by Vanderbilt’s honor code.  Please read carefully the description of the honor code in the student handbook and the section on plagiarism in the class pack for this course.  If you have any questions about this very important matter, please come and discuss them with me.

Course Schedule

Part I.  What’s at stake?

Week 1

Thursday, Jan. 10 — Intro and overview; film: The Measure of a Man

Read Richard Hanley, Is Data Human?, chs. 1-2 (on reserve)

Week 2

Tuesday, Jan. 15

Discuss film, Hanley chs. 1-2

Discuss 3-minute filmclip on Cog, the slinky-handling robot, on the web at:


Discuss 3-minute filmclip on Kismet, the cutesy-wutesy robot, on the web at:


Thursday, Jan. 17  * Response paper on Data, Cog, Kismet, and Hanley due

Discuss Hanley, ch. 3

Week 3

Tuesday, Jan. 22

Discuss P.C. Rogers, “AI as a dehumanizing force” (on reserve)

Discuss Bill Joy, “Why the future doesn’t need us,” on reserve and also available on the web at:


Part II.  What are the possibilities?

Thursday, Jan. 24

Discuss Maureen Caudill, “Artificial Intelligence” and “Neural Networks,” in In Our Own Image, pp. 8-20 (on reserve)

Discuss Hans Moravec, Robot, ch. 1

Week 4

Tuesday, Jan. 29

Discuss Moravec, chs. 2-3

Thursday, Jan. 31

Discuss Moravec, chs. 4-5

Week 5

Tuesday, Feb. 5  * Response paper on Joy, Rogers, Moravec due

Discuss Moravec, chs. 6-7

Part III.  Where do the limits lie?

Thursday, Feb. 7

Discuss Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus, “Making a Mind versus Modeling the Brain,” in The Artificial Intelligence Debate, pp. 15-39 (on reserve)

Discuss Daniel Crevier, “Souls of Silicon,” in AI, pp. 254-277

Week 6

Tuesday, Feb. 12    * One-page description of your research paper topic due

Discuss Rodney Brooks, Cambrian Intelligence, pp. 133-185 (on reserve)

Thursday, Feb. 14

No class; individual meetings with Prof. Bess to discuss research paper topics

Week 7

Tuesday, Feb. 19

Discuss Daniel Dennett, “Can Machines Think?” (pp. 3-30) and “The Practical Requirements for Making a Conscious Robot” (pp. 153-170) in Brainchildren, on reserve and also available as an e-book through Acorn.

Discuss James Hogan, Mind Matters, pp. 351-359 (on reserve)

Thursday, Feb. 21

Discuss Alan Wolfe, The Human Difference, ch. 2

Week 8

Tuesday, Feb. 26

Discuss Wolfe, ch. 3

Thursday, Feb. 28

Discuss Wolfe, ch. 4 * Response paper on Dreyfus, Brooks, Dennett, Wolfe due

Week 9

Spring Break

Week 10

Tuesday, March 12

Discuss John Harris, Clones, Genes, and Immortality, chs. 7 and 9 (on reserve)

Thursday, March 14

Discuss David Heyd, Genethics: Moral Issues in the Creation of People, ch. 6 (on reserve)

Part IV.  Blurring Boundaries

Week 11

Tuesday, March 19

Discuss Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” in Simians, Cyborgs, Women, pp. 149-181 (on reserve)

Thursday, March 21

Discuss Dyson, Darwin among the Machines, chs. 1-2

Week 12

Tuesday, March 26

Discuss Dyson, chs. 2-3

Thursday, March 28

Discuss Dyson, chs. 4-5

Week 13

Tuesday, April 2 * Research paper due

Discuss Dyson, chs. 6-7

Part V.  Where do I stand in the ongoing debate?

Thursday, April 4

Jonathan and Morris: presentations on research papers; class discussion of presentations

Anita presides over discussion of Dyson, chs. 6-7

Week 14

Tuesday, April 9

Goldfarb lab visit; meet in class, walk to Goldfarb lab together

Thursday, April 11

Kawamura lab visit; meet in class, walk to K. lab together

Week 15

Tuesday, April 16

David, Melanie, Anita: Student presentations; discussion

Tim presides over discussion of Dyson, chs. 8-9

Thursday, April 18  * Response paper due: What have I learned?

John, Dustin, Tim: student presentations; discussion

Jonathan presides over discussion of Dyson, chs. 10-11

Week 16

Tuesday, April 23

Jocelyn, Kelly, Caroline: student presentations; discussion

Bess presides over discussion of Dyson, ch. 12

Bess splits: course evaluation forms filled out

Written assignments and class presentations

I. Written assignments.

A. Response papers.  These short essays are designed to focus your thoughts about the major segments of course readings, giving you an opportunity to sum up the main issues very concisely.  The response paper should be about 1 page long, typed single-spaced.  Try not to exceed this limit.  In this paper you should set forth what the main issues are in the assigned readings, discussing them critically and analytically.  How persuasive is the author?  Is he or she leaving anything out?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of the way the author treats the subject?  Explain succinctly.

B. Topic description for research paper.  Lay out, in a single page (typed single-spaced), what subject you have chosen for your semester research paper.  Your task for the research paper will be to take a stand on some issue that is central to the Human/Machine boundary debate.  Choose any aspect that particularly grabs you, and delve more deeply into it.

Be careful not to make the topic so vague and vast that it’s impossible for you to tackle in a single semester — such as, for example, “The history of artificial intelligence,” or “Brain research in the past half century.”  Try to focus your topic as concretely as you can, so that it strikes a balance between the universal and the particular — between the “big questions” that make a research paper interesting to write, and the tangible specifics that render it doable as a project.  Include a list of at least five books and/or articles you have found on the subject.  Feel free to come discuss your possible topics with me as much as you wish in the weeks before February 12, when this assignment is due.

C. Research paper.  This essay is to be about 8-10 pages long, typed double-spaced.  Include footnotes (as appropriate) and a bibliography.

II. Class presentations

A. Each student will be assigned two class sessions during the semester in which he or she will be asked to start off the discussion with a 10-15 minute analytical report on that day’s reading.  The report should briefly summarize the main issues of that day’s reading, then discuss them critically.  How persuasive is the author?  Is he or she leaving anything out?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of the way the author treats the subject?  Try not to exceed the 15-minute limit.

B. Each student will make a 15-minute in-class presentation late in the semester, based on the findings of his or her research paper.  After 3 such presentations in each class session, the class as a whole will discuss them.