Introduction: Dr. DeFalco

“There is nothing permanent except change.”

— Heraclitus (535 BC – 475 – BC)  

I am deeply honored to be able to participate in this truly important site dedicated to the importance of examining human nature, particularly at a time when our understanding of what it means to be human is undergoing a seismic recalibration in the light of AI.

By way of background, I hold a PhD in Psychology (Cognitive Studies in Education with a concentration in Intelligent Psychology) from Columbia University, and an MA in Education from New York University. I also hold an MDS in Dramatic Literature and Criticism from Johns Hopkins University, and my Bachelor’s degree is in History from the CW Post Campus of Long Island University. (Yes, I will always be a Strong-Islander at heart…).

I’ve been asked many times how I went from History to Theatre to Psychology–to explain the narrative of my career to date with seemingly very disparate domain paths–and my answer is both glibly and seriously the same: it’s all drama; it’s all about the human experience.

I studied History because I wanted, in my youth, to understand how we got to where we were at with our current events. In the early 1990’s, the Gulf War had just started in August of 1990, and I knew so little about the Middle East and how the United States came to be involved in that area, so I sought to understand more deeply the history of America and its role on the global stage of the past two hundred years. However, History was a little depressing, to be honest.

When I started studying the Civil War, I was deeply disturbed to know that in the fiercest and bloodiest battle, The Battle at Bull Run, within the span of hours almost 2,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed. I thought to myself, that was as if someone took every student out of my high school and mowed them down out on our football field. And more than that, I thought there was not a thing I could actually do about it. There was no rewrite to history. So I turned my attention to the theatre, because I thought perhaps if we could share the stories of (real and fiction) of the causes and effects of human behavior, perhaps we could shape our future outcomes to be less devastating.

Studying, performing, and directing in the theater was, and continues to be, a significant source of inspiration and a font of knowledge on what it means to be human. One of my most favorite factoid about the Ancient Greeks is that it was a civic obligation to attend the theatre. Why? Because in a time where the were no textbooks, or news outlets, or internet, the theatre is where the Athenians would go to learn their history and what it meant to live in a society.

And yet for all the power of insights that the theatre can bring to our understanding of what it means to be human, the theatre’s reach is limited by the very nature of its transient and ephemeral existence. In the early 2000’s, there was very little empirical data on the effectiveness of the arts in terms of positively contributing to learning outcomes, so I decided to equip myself with the tools of empirical research to get that data. And so I went to Columbia to learn how to measure things.

Going to Columbia was transformative for me. Not only did it introduce me to the art of measurement, but the Human Development Department at Teachers College Columbia was deep into exploring emerging technologies as a way to support learning. This included using human virtual agents, game-based training, immersive simulations, mobile learning, and synthetic environments, like Second City. It was in this space, that I found the a profound intersection of art and science, where these emerging technologies combined with research on how the mind obtains, processes, and reconfigures knowledge to aid us in the life long struggles of learning: decision making, problem solving, and constructing a meaningful life.

So it is through this framework of the combination of art as it is mediated by artificial intelligence and technology that I come to this forum to reflect on the historical roots of human nature and future implications of what it means to be human. I’m excited to be a part of this community, and I thank you for taking this journey with me.

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