An essay by Clayton O’Dell, a junior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in computer science and pursuing a minor in tech ethics through the Notre Dame Technology Ethics Center (ND TEC), recently appeared in the summer 2023 issue of The New Atlantis.
In “Why I Fired My AI Agent,” O’Dell talks about her experience trying out two autonomous “agents”—one that requires some knowledge of computer science to install and another set up as a more traditional (and more limited) website—that are applications of ChatGPT. She notes “the key difference from and radical innovation over ChatGPT” is these agents’ ability to keep reinstructing themselves—and thus continue running—when a search comes up empty, rather than requiring a user to enter a new query.
Alarmed after the more robust of the two agents warned enabling its “continuous mode” “may cause your AI to run forever or carry out actions you would not usually authorize,” she asks if we are okay with handing so much power over to artificial intelligence.
One of O’Dell’s professors didn’t know her essay was forthcoming until he saw her name on the issue’s cover when it arrived in his mail.
“Placing an essay in a journal is a proud moment for anyone, but it’s especially noteworthy when the author is a student at the undergraduate level,” said Warren von Eschenbach, who directs the tech ethics minor and taught O’Dell in its gateway course, Fundamentals of Technology Ethics and Society. “Not that I’m surprised when it comes to Clayton. She signed up for the minor the semester we began offering it, and in the little time that I’ve known her, her work has been consistently outstanding.”
Focused on technology and society, The New Atlantis is described as “not an academic journal but a public journal of ideas” that publishes long-form essays, articles, and reports intended to be accessible to both scholars and the general public.
O’Dell was actually one of two contributors to the summer issue with a Notre Dame connection. Brian Boyd, who was concurrently a graduate fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, the Notre Dame-IBM Technology Ethics Lab, and ND TEC during his doctoral studies at the University, published the essay “B.S. Jobs and the Coming Crisis of Meaning” (subscription required).
O’Dell credits Boyd, a former New Atlantis intern, and a class he taught at Notre Dame titled Theology, Ethics, and Business, which she took in spring 2023, with opening the door to this opportunity.
“I used an assignment about social structures in business to talk about how definitions of moral agency in social structures are challenged by chatbots,” she said. “Professor Boyd’s assignment inspired this writing, and his continued interest in my success led to its publication.”