UMBC Ancient Studies Week
Thinking Tools, Artificial Intelligence, and the Enslaved Readers of Ancient Rome
Joseph Howley, Associate Professor, Classics, Columbia University
Part of UMBC's 2023 Humanities Forum
As the computer, the printing press, or the quill pen was to the book culture of other eras, slavery was to ancient Rome. From the Late Republic through the High Empire, members of Rome’s literate elite made use of enslaved research assistants and stenographers to write books, enslaved copyists and binders to make new copies and maintain old ones, and enslaved readers to read aloud for convenience or in social settings. These elites could read and write for themselves, and often did, but the work of these highly skilled and specialized readers and writers was ubiquitous and essential for a certain kind of highly educated lifestyle. This talk will examine enslaved reading in Rome, situate that practice in histories of reading and of slavery, and look at how the questions this practice raises relate to the current moment of interest in generative AI. Ancient thinking about autonomous tools prefigures questions we find ourselves asking today about machine learning and Large Language Models in creative, intellectual, and educational work.
Joseph A. Howley edited The Retriever Weekly in 2005–2006 and graduated from UMBC in 2006 with a B.A. in Ancient Studies. He also holds an M.Litt. in Ancient History (2007) and a Ph.D.in Classics (2011) from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is Associate Professor in Classics at Columbia University, where he also serves as Paul Brooke Program Chair for Literature Humanities, a required first-year general education course in Columbia’s nationally renowned Core Curriculum. He has published on Roman intellectual culture, the history of books and reading, and early phonograph recordings of Greek and Latin. His current book project is Slavery and the Roman Book. In 2023, he received a Provost Innovative Course Design award to develop a new course for the Classics Department, “Aristotle and AI: Thinking Tools from Antiquity to Today.”
Admission is free.
This lecture is organized by the Department of Ancient Studies.
Co-sponsored by the Dresher Center for the Humanities.
Photo provided by speaker.