Conversations Series: Fall 2023

No lecture. No readings. Just Conversation.


We’re looking to gather an interdisciplinary group of thoughtful and engaged students to meet every other week to discuss technology-related topics.Students who apply to be a part of this group (here), are expected to attend all seven Conversations throughout the semester. 

Conversations will take place at the Ahmanson Lab every other Tuesday from 3pm-4pm during fall 2023. See below for our bi-weekly topics.

Free pizza is provided at each Conversation.

Students, apply to be part a part of this group, here.

Bi-weekly Topics

  • vr thumbnail

    VR: A Solution Without A Problem?

    September 5, 2023 | 3:00pm - 4:00pm

    Virtual reality (VR) has been lauded for its groundbreaking potential to redefine how we interact with digital environments, yet its practical, everyday applications remain elusive for most. While the technology offers unparalleled immersive experiences, its practical applications often appear limited, overshadowed by the novelty of the experience itself. The high costs of adoption, both in terms of equipment and content creation, further compound the challenge. Some critics thus argue that VR, in many cases, represents an impressive technological feat searching for a truly essential application, rather than addressing a pre-existing, widespread need.

    Topics of conversation might include: Will VR always be a niche technology for gamers and other tech enthusiasts or will the metaverse (promoted by Meta) or spatial computing (marketed by Apple’s new Vision Pro) become mainstream? How has the narrative of virtual reality's potential outpaced its real-world applications, and what does this disconnect reveal more generally about technology adoption? With emerging technologies like augmented reality (AR) offering more seamless integration into daily life, how does VR maintain its unique value proposition?
  • future of social media thumbnail

    The Future of Social Media

    September 19, 2023 | 3:00pm - 4:00pm

    As social media companies seek to expand, or even maintain, their market position, they will likely develop their platforms to integrate into more areas of our daily lives and activities. We already see glimpses of this expansion. With the rise of the metaverse, social interactions may evolve from flat, screen-based engagements to immersive, three-dimensional shared experiences, potentially redefining the very essence of online community. As platforms like WeChat, and now X (formerly known as Twitter) move into the financial sector, social media may transform from mere communication tools to comprehensive hubs for transactions, payments, and commerce.

    Topics of conversation might include: Are there benefits to having social media platforms act as all-encompassing ecosystems that centralize various sectors of our lives like communication, culture, finance, commerce, and healthcare? Are there ethical concerns? How might regulatory bodies address the aggressive expansion strategies of social media giants, especially when they start to monopolize additional areas of daily life?
  • superintelligence

    Artificial Superintelligence

    October 3, 2023 | 3:00pm - 4:00pm

    Artificial superintelligence (ASI) refers to a hypothetical form of AI that surpasses human intelligence across all fields, from creative arts to scientific research. Unlike contemporary AI, which excels in specific tasks, ASI would be capable of outperforming the best human minds in every domain. The emergence of ASI raises profound ethical, safety, and existential questions about its potential impact on society and humanity's future.

    Topics of conversation might include: How far do we think we are away from artificial general intelligence as well as superintelligence? How can we ensure that superintelligent entities act in humanity's best interests, and what fail-safes are necessary to prevent unintended consequences? What happens when an ASI is capable of building an AI superior to itself (e.g. and that subsequent AI is capable of building an AI superior to itself etc…)?

  • persuisive technologies thumbnail

    Persuasive Technologies

    October 17, 2023 | 3:00pm - 4:00pm

    Social media companies meticulously design their platforms using persuasive techniques to maximize user engagement, capitalizing on the new "attention economy." Features like endless scrolling, notifications, and "like" systems exploit human psychology (in many cases, our dopamine delivery system), driving users to seek validation and spend more time on the platform. By leveraging algorithms that curate content based on user behavior, these platforms ensure that users are constantly presented with personalized, captivating content, making it difficult to disengage.

    Topics of conversation might include: What is the impact of persuasive design and addictive user interfaces on mental health and well-being? What are the psychological impacts of validation mechanisms, such as "likes," “followers,” and "comments"? Are they fostering a new kind of social dependency? How might future platforms adapt or change to capture even more of our attention (e.g. in the metaverse), and what defenses can individuals adopt?
  • turing test

    The Turing Test

    October 31, 2023 | 3:00pm - 4:00pm

    As part of the rules for the Turing Test (AKA “the imitation game”), Alan Turing proposed in 1950 that a machine can be said to be intelligent if it has the ability to exhibit intelligent behavior that is indistinguishable from that of a human. Though a controversial metric for artificial general intelligence, a prize has been offered every year since 1990 for any system that can fool a significant number of judges into believing that a human is on the other side of chat-based conversation. How does the Turing Test hold up at a time when AI has entered into new areas of creative human activity?

    Topics of conversation might include: Is the ability to parrot human behavior or use of language a true test of machine intelligence? Is the Turing Test more or less relevant with the emergence of machine learning, large language models, and text-to-image generators? What are other limitations of the Turing Test as a true measure of intelligence? What are better alternatives?
  • Affective Computing Conversation

    Affective Computing

    November 14, 2023 | 3:00pm - 4:00pm

    Affective computing is a branch of computer science and artificial intelligence that focuses on the design and development of systems capable of recognizing, interpreting, and simulating human emotions. By integrating sensors, software, and algorithms, these systems can respond to user emotions in a way that appears emotionally intelligent. While the current aim of affective computing is to improve human-computer interaction by making devices more responsive to the emotional states of their users, there's potential for such systems to be used manipulatively, altering content or responses to exploit users' emotional states for profit or other motives.

    Topics of conversation might include: As technology becomes more emotionally responsive, how can we strike a balance to prevent over-dependence on machines for emotional validation or support? In what ways might affective computing be used for emotional manipulation, and how can we prevent such misuse? How can we make users aware of when and how their emotional state is being monitored, and what rights do they have concerning the use and storage of this data?

  • Technology as Religion Thumbnail

    Technology as Religion

    November 28, 2023 | 3:00pm - 4:00pm

    Technology presents paradigms that parallel religious concepts, offering alternative interpretations of age-old beliefs. Indeed, cutting-edge technologies enable even staunch materialists in places like Silicon Valley, (e.g. Ray Kurzweil) to embrace beliefs typically associated with metaphysics or religion. For instance, the notion of uploading one's consciousness to a computer resonates with the religious promise of eternal life, suggesting a digital transcendence beyond physical mortality. Similarly, the theory that we exist within a computer simulation mirrors religious beliefs of a realm or existence beyond our perceived reality, hinting at layers of creation we've yet to understand. Furthermore, as we edge closer to creating an Artificial Superintelligence, it can be perceived as a god-like entity, possessing knowledge and power far beyond human comprehension.

    Topics of conversation might include: As Artificial Intelligence and other technologies become increasingly integrated into daily life, how might religious interpretations of the soul, consciousness, and existence evolve? Can technological developments truly replace or serve as alternatives to religious beliefs (can they for instance, give our lives meaning and purpose ), or do they simply offer another layer of interpretation for our existential questions? How might these interpretations differ across cultures and belief systems?