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Whidden Lecture Series

The Whidden Lectures were established in 1954 by E. Carey Fox, a philanthropic alumnus of McMaster University, to honour a beloved Chancellor, the Reverend Howard P. Whidden, churchman, statesman, and teacher, who had been the architect of the university’s transfer from Toronto to Hamilton in 1930.

The first lecture in the series, which is understood to have an interdisciplinary mandate, was delivered in 1954.

In recent years the Whidden lectureship has attracted outstanding scholars, reflecting the interdisciplinary and outreach mandates of the endowment and drawing large audiences.


Lecture for 2018

Joanna Bryson is a Reader (tenured Associate Professor) at the University of Bath, and an affiliate of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP). She has broad academic interests in the structure and utility of intelligence, both natural and artificial.  Venues for her research range from reddit to Science.  She is best known for her work in systems AI and AI ethics, both of which she began during her PhD in the 1990s, but she and her colleagues publish broadly, in biology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, cognitive science, and politics.  Current projects include “Public Goods and Artificial Intelligence”, with Alin Coman of Princeton Psychology and Mark Riedl of Georgia Tech, funded by Princeton’s University Center for Human Values.  This project includes both basic research in human sociality and experiments in technological interventions.  Other current research include understanding the causality behind the correlation between wealth inequality and political polarization, generating transparency for AI systems, and research on machine prejudice deriving from human semantics.  She holds degrees in Psychology from Chicago and Edinburgh, and in Artificial Intelligence from Edinburgh and MIT.  At Bath she founded the Intelligent Systems research group (one of four in the Department of Computer Science) and heads their Artificial Models of Natural Intelligence.

The Good, The Bad, and The Synthetic: A New Perspective on Sociality –  February 28th, Concert Hall – LRW  Concert Hall at 3:30 pm – 5:30 pm

Why are some species more likely to use intelligence as a strategy than others?  Why does reliance on intelligence as a strategy vary between individuals of the same species?

Why are some people (but not most) willing to pay to punish someone who is giving them money? Why does the tendency for such punishment vary systematically by global region?

Can we build robots to be ordinary members of our society, with ethical rights and obligations similar to a human adult?  Should we?  Why do we want to?

The parallel pursuit of these very different research questions has recently converged to lead me to a series of answers that give a new perspective on ethics and morality, as well as a series of interdependent answers to all of the above questions.  Variation occurs in nature where there are equally viable tradeoffs between incompatible solutions. In fact, variation is essential to robustness, that is, to finding new solutions to new challenges, so can itself be supported by natural processes.  However, some traits work better together than others.  Intelligence as a strategy is more likely to be rewarding with a high level of investment in individuals and a high amount of communication of discovered solutions, but such communication is a form of collaboration and requires a context in which public goods can be sufficiently beneficial. Language affords us an increased capacity for coordination and an increased probability of discovering mutually beneficial arrangements. Ethics is the means by which we keep societies together. Our current ethics does not well afford the inclusion of purely synthetic (deliberately designed and constructed) artefacts as equals, and I will argue it is unlikely that we could construct a coherent ethics in which that would not be true. If anything, we are already affording to many rights to artefacts we could better protect by other means. I will present a mix of published and unpublished work in support of these arguments.

We Didn’t Prove Prejudice Is True: Why and When Machines Have Human Bias – March 1st, University Club – Great Hall at 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm

Machine learning is a means to derive artificial intelligence by discovering patterns in existing data. In a 2017 article with colleagues Aylin Caliskan and Arvind Narayanan, I  showed that applying machine learning to ordinary human language results in human-like semantic biases. We replicated a spectrum of known biases, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, using a widely used, purely statistical machine-learning model trained on a standard corpus of text from the World Wide Web. Our results indicate that text corpora contain recoverable and accurate imprints of our historic biases, whether morally neutral as toward insects or flowers, problematic as toward race or gender, or even simply veridical, reflecting the status quo distribution of gender with respect to careers or first names.

In the abstract to our article, we assert that “Our methods hold promise for identifying and addressing sources of bias in culture, including technology.”  In this talk I will first present our results, then discuss what our research on machine bias demonstrates concerning the origins of human biases, stereotypes, and prejudices.  Then I will discuss the extent to which implicit and explicit human bias accounts for bias in AI, and how and whether we can address such bias, perhaps using AI.

Models and Morality: How Can Computing Contribute to Knowledge? March 1st 10:00 am in LRW 2001

In this seminar I will describe the ways by which, and discuss the extent to which, computer simulations can be considered as contributing to knowledge. I will then go into detail about one of the models mentioned in the technical talk, about how evolution can select for behaving altruistically and giving away valuable knowledge.  I then expect to discuss this approach, and anything else the students wish to discuss.

Please register at: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/graduate-student-breakfast-with-joanna-bryson-tickets-43003442454


Past Lectures

Over the past decade, we have been fortunate enough to welcome the following distinguished scholars as Whidden Lecturers:

  • 2017: Daphne A. Brooks, Professor of African American Studies, Theater Studies, and American Studies at Yale University. “The Knowles Sisters’ Political Hour: Black Feminist Sonic Dissent at the End of the Third Reconstruction”, “If You Should Lose Me”: The Archive, the Critic, the Record Shop & the Blues Woman”
  • 2016: Amber Miller, Professor of Physics and Dean of Science at Columbia University. “Nature’s Ultimate Time Machine: Photographing the Infant Universe”, “Cosmological Observations from the Stratosphere”
  • 2014: Joanna Aizenberg, Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University.”Stealing from Nature: Bioinspired Materials of the Future”
  • 2013: Jasbir Puar, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University. “Ecologies of Sensation,Sensational Ecologies: Sex and Disability in the Israeli Occupation of Palestine”
  • 2012: Ray Jayawardhana, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics, University of Toronto. “Rocks, Ice and Penguins: Searching for Clues to Planetary Origins in Antarctica”
  • 2011: Sara Ahmed, Professor of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, “On Being Included: On Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life” and “Wilful Subjects: On the Experience of Social Dissent”
  • 2009: Sean Carroll, Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics, University of Wisconsin, “Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species” and “Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Evo-Devo and an Expanding Evolutionary Synthesis”
  • 2008: Mahmood Mamdani, Professor of Government in the Departments of Anthropology and Political Science at Columbia University, “Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror”
  • 2007: Mervyn Morris, Poet and Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing and West Indian Literature, University of the West Indies, “Playing with the Dialect of the Tribe: West Indian Poetry”
  • 2006: Brian Massumi, Professor of Communication, Université de Montréal, “The Ideal Streak—Why Visual Representation Always Fails,” “Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption,” and “Affect and Abstraction”
  • 2005: Donna Haraway, Professor of the History of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz, “We Have Never Been Modern”
  • 2003: John-Daniel Stanley, Deltas Global Change Program, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, “World Deltas: Archeological and Environmental Perspectives”
  • 2001: Steven Beckwith, Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, “Rocket Science and Little Green Men”

Terms of Reference for the Whidden Lectureship at McMaster University

1. Committee Structure and Responsibilities

  • The lectureship is administered by the Office of the Dean of Humanities, and all activities should be carried out in on-going consultation with the Dean’s Office.
  • The responsibilities of the Whidden committee members are twofold in nature: 1) nominating appropriate candidates and securing their participation, usually a year in advance; and 2) publicizing/hosting the annual lectureship.
  • The committee should be composed of 5 members, representing several different Faculties at McMaster and ranging across the Arts and the Sciences.
  • Members of the committee should be tenured Associate Professors or Professors with strong research programs and international reputations.
  • Members will be invited by the Chair of the committee to join the committee for a 3-year term.  Terms will be staggered in order to ensure continuity over the years.  The Dean of Humanities will be apprised annually of the current membership of the committee.
  • Each year the committee will select from amongst its members a new Chair, in order to ensure a distribution of labour and the representation of various disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.
  • To facilitate advance planning and continuity, the Chair of the Whidden committee will draw on the guidance of the Past-Chair and also prepare the Chair-Elect to assume chair duties the following year.

 2. Finances and Administration

  • Travel, hospitality, and publicity will be arranged by the co-sponsoring department, in consultation with the Office of the Dean of Humanities.
  • The administrative processes (expenses, letter of appointment) should continue to be in consultation with, and facilitated by the Office of the Dean of Humanities.
  • The committee should have access to information about the financial condition of the Whidden fund, both the capital and the expendable parts, as well as information about how it is being managed.  The committee may recommend changes, as necessary, to the way the fund is being managed.

3. Publicity and Outreach

  • Entry to the talks should continue to be free of charge, and the lectureship should be advertised widely inside and outside McMaster (including relevant faculties at nearby Ontario Universities), through a poster campaign and web-based promotion.
  • The Office of the Dean of Humanities will support publicity and outreach for the Whidden lectureship, including an informational page on the Humanities website.
  • For additional support, the Whidden fund can supply limited matching funds to hire a student research assistant through a program such as the Ontario Work-Study Program.
  • To maximize access for our community on and off-campus, the talks should ideally be held in the evening, in one of the large-lecture halls, i.e. a 300 seat capacity room with built-in audiovisual capacity such as HSC 1A1 or one of the large MDCL rooms.  These rooms need to be secured several months in advance.
  • The talks, seminars, and hospitality for the event will be in accordance with the AODA legislation and McMaster’s “Planning for Accessibility” document. Human Rights and Equity Services should be consulted about the event so that any accessibility and/or equity concerns can be anticipated.
  • The committee should consider pursuing publication of the talks (similar to the Massey lectures); Oxford University Press has expressed interest.

4.  Whidden Lecturer Appointment Criteria and Process:           

  • The lectureship should alternate between the Arts and the Sciences; at the same time, the lecturers/ topics selected should have broad interdisciplinary and popular appeal
  • A Whidden lecturer should be internationally renowned within her/his specific field and beyond.
  • In addition, s/he should have a reputation as a dynamic, accessible presenter, able to engage specialist and non-specialist audiences alike.
  • Emphasis should be put on up-and-coming, mid-career scholars who are in the process of making a major new research contribution.
  • The committee will carefully review all suggestions for lecturers that are brought to its attention.  Each year suggestions for possible Whidden lecturers will be accepted until February 1st.  This deadline along with lectureship appointment criteria and information about how to contact the committee will be posted on the web page.
  • However, the primary responsibility for generating nominations from year to year rests with the members of the committee, who will evaluate possible nominations according to the terms of reference and according to the committee’s understanding of what constitutes cutting-edge research today.
  • The committee will aim to have secured a lecturer for the following year by June 1st.
  • The honorarium should be competitive in order to secure a speaker of the very best calibre and reputation (currently $5,000).
  • The travel and hospitality expenses should be suitable to entertaining a speaker of this calibre and to ensuring McMaster’s reputation ($3,000-$5,000, depending on the speaker’s home location).
  • The Chair of the Whidden Committee should work, where possible, to pursue connections with individual departments, institutes, or faculties in order to strengthen our ability to bring in top-level candidates, i.e. securing an agreement to top up the honorarium and/or to share some hospitality costs.
  • Benefits and linkages to more than one McMaster graduate program should be prioritized.
  • Lecturers should be asked to commit to giving two public talks and a seminar with graduate students over the course of a 2-3 day visit.

After agreeing on a ranked list of candidates and consulting with the Dean of Humanities about this list, the chair of the committee will work to put together an agreement in principle with the top-ranked candidate, and the nomination will then be submitted for formal approval by the Dean of Humanities and, subsequently, the Senate Committee on Appointments, with the letter of appointment to be issued by the Office of the President.


Whidden Committee Members

  • Tracy McDonald (Department of History)  and Eugenia Zuroski (Department of English and Cultural Studies) (Co-chairs of the Whidden Lecture Committee)
  • Sean Corner, Department of Classics (Chair 2016)
  • Christina Baade, Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia (Chair 2015)
  • Juliet Daniel, Department of Biology
  • Kalaichelvi Saravanamuttu, Department of Chemistry (Chair 2013-14)
  • Debbie Sloboda, Department of Biochemistry & Biomedical Science
  • Gena Zuroski-Jenkins, Department of English and Cultural Studies; Editor, Eighteenth-Century Fiction
  • Grant Mcclelland, Department of Biology
  • Tracy McDonald, Department of History