Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

PWR 1SBB: The Rhetoric of Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Main content start


Fall 2021: Section 1 TTh 9:30AM-11:15AM

Winter 2022: TBD

Spring 2022: TBD

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP) 

Prerequisite: None

Course Feature: WR-1 requirement

Artificial intelligence, whether in the humanoid form or as intelligent systems, has long been an object of fascination, trepidation, and desire. We invent real AIs (IBM’s Watson, Da Vinci surgical systems, the text generator GPT-3) to extend the scale and scope of human capacity beyond its current reach; we invent fictional AIs (Data, Bender, HAL, Skynet, Samantha) in part to play out the consequences of achieving those aspirations and in part because they facilitate thinking what humans being do and are. In this class, we will look at how robots and AIs—real and imagined—function rhetorically: how we talk about them and how we use them to talk about other things. Our aspiration to create machines that do what humans do (whether or not they look like humans when they do it) sparks a number of provocative questions for writing projects, including questions about vital domains of human experience, such as the future of work (What is the impact of automation on particular kinds of work, including writing? What will human beings do with themselves when machines do more of the work?) and social life (How will the introduction of increasingly satisfying robot or AI companions alter how we relate to each other in a variety of settings?)

Texts for the class (essays, film, fiction) will help us to explore these questions, providing inspiration for the writing projects at the center of the class. For your research, you are invited to consider robots and/or AIs in whatever direction sparks your curiosity, including research into existing or emerging uses of AIs in the criminal justice system, in medicine, or in education. Or you might look at AIs as they appear in fiction (film, literature, video games) and as metaphors in other kinds of public discourse (news, punditry, internet memes). Such explorations might lead to a wide variety of topics, ranging from human/machine interactions to debates in engineering ethics to explorations of the capacities machines may come to emulate: intelligence, sociality, personhood, autonomy, consciousness.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages) For this assignment, you may choose among a variety of texts (advertisements, op-eds, fiction, academic research articles) to analyze how the text functions as an argument. Among the texts available will be an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation; Asimov’s short story, “Robot Dreams”; and a feature article about the text generator GPT-3, “Can a Machine Learn to Write for The New Yorker?”

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages) For your texts in conversation, you will write a preliminary literature review in which you explore existing research on the research topic that will become the focus of your Research-Based Argument. For instance, you might choose to investigate the economic, social, and/or psychological consequences of using AI in medicine, law, or warfare; or you might look at the competing notions of “intelligence,” “emotion,” or “creativity” that shape the work of engineers; or you might conduct a feminist analysis of the robots of Westworld; or you might look at how the figure of Skynet from The Terminator franchise has haunted the discussions of potential AI defense systems.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages) Based on the research plan developed for the previous assignment, students will develop conduct research to arrive at a stance, and then compose an academic research-based argument in which they support that stance.