NIU has named Communication Professor David Gunkel, an internationally acclaimed scholar of information technology, as a 2021 Presidential Research, Scholarship and Artistry Professor.
The award is NIU’s top recognition for outstanding research or artistry. It has been given out annually since 1982 in recognition and support of NIU’s research and artistic mission. Award winners receive special financial support of their research for four years, after which they carry the title of Distinguished Research Professor.
The explosion of technology in recent decades—with the growth of the internet, video games, virtual worlds, social media, artificial intelligence and robots—has profoundly changed the way we communicate. In its wake, Professor Gunkel is providing critical insights into the moral consequences of this engagement with technology and machines.
His 90-plus scholarly articles and book chapters, 10 highly influential books and three edited collections have shaped the fields of internet and digital-media ethics, elucidated ethical dilemmas in video games, virtual worlds and social media, and challenged the belief that technology is merely a medium through which human messages pass.
“David’s publications address a wide range of topics in the ethics of emerging technology,” says Mehdi Semati, communication department chair. “The research these articles present has had a significant impact on current scholarship as demonstrated nearly 2,400 citations in the literature, appearing at least in 12 different disciplines.”
Today Gunkel is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on questions related to the moral and legal status of technological artifacts such as artificial intelligence and robots.
In a seminal 2012 journal article and subsequent books such as “The Machine Question,” “How to Survive a Robot Invasion” and “Robot Rights,” Gunkel helped establish an entirely new subfield, human-machine communication, which is now recognized by International Communication Association as a research division.
His work explores social, political, ethical and cultural consequences of human engagement with machines—whether through algorithms, digital assistants, artificial intelligence or robots. In 2020, he wrote and published what is considered to be the field’s agenda-setting textbook, “An Introduction to Communication and AI,” which has been nominated for the 2021 International Communication Association Annual Book Award.
“Dr. Gunkel is a founder of the human-machine communication subfield of communication science and studies,” says Communication Professor Chad Edwards of Western Michigan University, who co-directs his institution’s Communication and Social Robotics Labs. “His work has paved the way for communication scientists to explore the ethical underpinnings of developing relationships with robots and AI.”
Gunkel’s research and thought leadership has attracted attention beyond his field as well. He contributed to a recent effort in the U.S. Congress to develop a national strategy on artificial intelligence. Additionally, he is a frequent commentator in the popular media on emerging technologies.
In the classroom, Gunkel teaches students how to teach themselves about technology, so they can reskill themselves as technology advances. His outstanding teaching has been recognized with NIU’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award and the Presidential Teaching Professorship.
The veteran NIU professor plans to continue to push boundaries in his field through investigation of computational creativity. As autonomous systems increasingly encroach on human abilities in areas such as manufacturing, communication and transportation, “the one remaining bulwark of human exceptionalism appears to be creativity,” he says.
“But there are now artifacts that can produce what appear to be original works in literature, music, visual art and cinema,” Gunkel adds. “My next project, Ars Ex Machina, will examine the opportunities and challenges of increasingly creative machines.”