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Founders’ Day keynote focuses on balancing cognition with skepticism

Dr. Charles Henry, president of the Council of Library and Information Resources, delivered a keynote Friday focused on how a liberal arts education prepares students to balance cognitive skills with a healthy dose of skepticism.

His talk, “Riddles: A Spell between Cognitive Science and the Humanities” was given at Lyon College’s Founders’ Day Convocation, an annual event celebrating the College’s 1872 founding.

As someone with profound respect for the possibilities of artificial intelligence, Henry nonetheless noted that we humans can be quite gullible when it comes to understanding technology’s limits and capabilities, “at times extremely so.” 

Henry pointed to the recent downfall of Theranos, a Silicon Valley startup, as but one example of our profound gullibility. The company was founded by a Stanford dropout who convinced investors her machine, aided by artificial intelligence, could use a drop of human blood to diagnose dozens of ailments and diseases, something that is “impossible,” said Henry.

Henry noted that although computers in the 1950s filled entire rooms, they “had about the computational power of a singing birthday card.” Even so, a computer’s transcendent potential held enormous appeal to those who believed its capabilities would empower humans in new and exciting ways in the decades ahead.

Today, machines are “scouts blazing a trail for us,” but Henry argued we must temper this appeal “with awareness of the ambiguities of our cognitive skills, for that makes us wise.”

Henry serves on the Board of Trustees of Tan Tao University in Vietnam, the advisory board of Stanford University Libraries, and the board of the Center for Research Libraries. He is a member of the Scientific Board of the Open Access Publishing in the European Network project and the co-PI of the Digital Library of the Middle East.

The convocation was free and open to the public.