‘We are at the hairy edge of innovation.’ Northeastern University London awards master’s degrees in philosophy and AI

students wearing caps and gowns at masters graduation
Northeastern University London’s postgraduate commencement ceremony was held Friday at the Senate House. Photo by Carmen Valino for Northeastern University

LONDON—Tess Buckley, 23, lives in a small town outside Toronto, Canada, but when she decided to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy and artificial intelligence, she found her dream program 3,000 miles away in the United Kingdom.

On Friday afternoon, Buckley was among the postgraduates who collected diplomas at Northeastern University London’s commencement ceremony at the Senate House, a striking art deco building in central London.

Northeastern London’s undergraduate graduation will take place in September.

As the student speaker, Buckley addressed the graduates, their families, faculty, staff and friends of the university inside the packed auditorium.

“We are at the hairy edge of innovation looking into artificial intelligence, the impact of technology on politics, the creative potential for AI and its ethical implications,” she said.

Buckley said she has learned more about what it means to be human by studying machines and AI.

“These industries have been here for years,” she said. “But we are a collective of individuals holding them to account and taking a path less traveled or, quite frankly, not traveled at all.”

Welcoming the graduates and congratulating them, British philosopher and author Anthony Clifford Grayling described Northeastern’s program as “operating at the cutting edge of contemporary concerns.”

Buckley, whose master’s thesis explored machine bias and ableism in biotechnology, earned her undergraduate degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She had originally planned to pursue her undergraduate degree in musical therapy and jazz vocal performance at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but  instead she found herself heading to the U.K. for the first time in September 2021.

“During my second year at McGill I took a random class in the philosophy of technology, and I simply could not get out of the library,” she told Northeastern Global News after Friday’s ceremony. “Computational creativity really struck a chord with me.”

So she spent the next two months googling master’s programs in philosophy and AI.

“But I couldn’t find anything at this intersection,” she said. “It was mostly applied ethics and law and tech. When I found out about Northeastern University in London, I realized this was my dream program.”

Now in its third year, the master’s program in philosophy and AI was the first of its kind in the world when it was launched, according to Brian Ball, head of faculty and associate professor in philosophy at Northeastern University London.

“At one point I remember there was some snickering among my students who drew my attention to a press release from Cambridge University announcing the world’s first program in philosophy and AI—except, we’d already launched this course a year earlier,” Ball said.

Nineteen of the 25 postgraduates were awarded master’s degrees in philosophy and AI. In addition, three earned master’s in philosophy, two master’s in digital politics and sustainable development, and one a master’s in AI with a human face.

Northeastern’s philosophy and AI program has attracted “a huge diversity of intellectual backgrounds,” Ball said, something he values greatly because students learn from one another. 

“We have bankers, architects, art curators, journalists and graduates straight out of philosophy degrees,” Ball said. “We give them the chance to do a bit of coding, teaching them Python, because to theorize about AI from a philosophical perspective, you need a sense of what makes it work.”

Several students graduating Friday started their degrees at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Isabella West, who works at London-based architectural firm Studio Egret West, found herself at home with her partner and their two children, ages 9 and 14.

“I struggled during the lockdown, with the four of us at home,” West said. “I needed to do something for my brain so I started this master’s in September 2020.”

West’s master’s thesis was on smart cities and how to use AI in creativity.

“It’s something I am now researching for both practical applications at Studio Egret West and for an exhibition,” she said.

Dominic Richmond, 25, from South London, also struggled to find a university that offered a master’s degree in philosophy and AI—until he found Northeastern London.

“It’s been amazing,” he said, “We’re in the beating heart of London, the campus is incredible. And, six months after finishing my studies I’m already seeing the benefits professionally as I got a promotion at Brainpool AI, a network of more than 500 artificial intelligence experts, where I work.”

Despite missing her family and the open spaces of Canada, Buckley has remained in the U.K. since her studies ended and was recently appointed a senior AI ethics analyst at London-based startup EthicsGrade. In this role, she analyzes AI governance and corporate digital responsibility. 

“I’m so happy to be applying my degree already,” she said.