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Columnist Mritika Senthil defends the intentions behind Penn's new AI major. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

During Penn’s recent administrative upheaval, the University community found an unexpected silver lining: For the first time, Penn was making headlines alongside Harvard and MIT. 

The presidents of these three institutions were at the center of an infamous congressional hearing in December after their alleged missteps on campus antisemitism. I’ll admit, there is something far more distasteful about chaos at the Capitol than the collective HYPSM prestige.

But many of us are taking our education at Penn for granted, shedding our “que será, será” optimism, and wondering at times what it would be like to go to a more recognizable Ivy. For decades, we’ve all but exhausted our morale by clarifying to passersby that no, Penn State and Penn are not the same university. And yes, Penn is actually active in areas outside of Wharton’s finance programs.

So, when Penn Engineering announced its new undergraduate program in artificial intelligence, many of us were enthusiastic about the University’s growing role in the innovation sector: a space thought to be dominated by less business-oriented institutions.

But Penn’s realization, of possibly its most practical initiative, begs the question: Is the University actually necessary in DevOps? Does sitting in a classroom — let alone one that’s in the midst of a campus known for its influx of finance bros — really supersede what can be MacGyvered by a tech junkie with only a laptop, caffeine, and time? I want to give a definite “no.” Otherwise, I would need to hold my classmates and myself accountable for upholding all the exclusivity that comes with attending Penn. And yet, there are a frustrating number of anonymous netizens, D-list journalists, and LinkedIn bards who call Ivy League universities like Penn “out of touch” — remnants of centuries-old American elitism in an era of bottom-up grassroots movements.

One C-suite executive anticipates that “the best AI engineers and builders won’t graduate Penn Engineering. They'll be global, builders and in the right group chats.” His readers agree, with one commenter further emphasizing that “universities cannot keep up with the pace of free market innovation.” When these schools attempt to go against the grain and align with consumer needs, “it genuinely looks embarrassing and out of date.”

In an environment where the use of AI models is largely democratized, we’re naturally drawn to the trope of a layperson who forgoes bureaucratic systems to channel their intelligence: creating life-changing inventions that would have never come to be under self-serving corporate and political influences. And when ignoring cases of succor — as mainstream media unfortunately does — there are many examples of such successes. Bill Gates and Paul Allen, co-founders of Microsoft, were university dropouts. So were Meta Platforms co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz. As Penn’s over reliance on donors came to light earlier this school year, critics of the upper crust have continued to group Penn with other perpetrators of social stratification. The field of AI is, by nature, continuously evolving. And limiting growth in the discipline to those who can afford, and then succeed in Penn’s Department of Computer and Information Science courses is counterproductive.

However, these narratives misrepresent the intentions of Penn’s AI program.

To make a better case for Penn’s AI major, I spoke with Robert Ghrist, Andrea Mitchell Professor and associate dean for undergraduate education at Penn Engineering. He describes how the process of integrating AI in education is similar to the effects of increasing access to music recording and playback technologies. Now, there is “more music for everyone at much lower prices,” he told me. Nonetheless, “artists at the very top of the industry” are increasingly the benefactors of “a concentration of rewards.” Taylor Swift is, as any current news feed can attest to, perhaps the most prolific embodiment of such phenomena. And professor Ghrist strives to make Penn an incubator of sorts for the “Taylor Swifts of AI” that seek avenues for academic growth, to actually be the “leading edge where the best thrive.”

And to thrive in this discipline, aspiring AI mavens are off course by simply memorizing browser instructions in JavaScript and praying for a tech equivalent of the coveted Goldman Sachs internship. After all, studying AI is a philosophical pursuit: an inquiry into the nature of consciousness and ethics of creating sentient machines. It’s also a political pursuit, for AI poses challenges in regulatory compliance. There are countless possible liabilities for even the most basic ChatGPT input, such as unprotected user data and violations of intellectual property rights.  

Needless to say, as you might have noticed in my earlier columns, I am not an AI major. I’m not even enrolled in Penn Engineering. Am I, of all students, in the right to quash critics of the Penn AI major when I dropped AP Computer Science in high school (with no regrets)?

Yet, it’s clearly irresponsible to follow the well-intentioned advice from tech capitalists when constant innovation is not particularly ideal for society. Maybe I’m just afraid of a "Black Mirror"-esque dystopia, but there is a kind of ominous quality to the idea of highly skilled AI scientists off the reins. Penn, however, is cultivating an ecosystem that nurtures AI talent, albeit not by stifling the next Elon Musk or Sam Altman with red-tape-ridden academics; instead, Penn fosters ethically conscious innovation that addresses complex societal challenges. And so, the fact that I can engage with the Penn curricula across departments has a surprising beauty. The opportunity to become a part of this technological movement — or, dare I say, revolution — is the gift of studying AI at Penn.

MRITIKA SENTHIL is a first year studying management and Russian and east European studies from Columbia, S.C. Her email is