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Helpful or Harmful? Walking the Fine Line of Creating Artificial Intelligence

Posted on Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The compelling aspects and technologies of Artificial Intelligence that drew Noelle Brown to receive a masters in machine learning, are the same pieces of information that now push her to place ethical checkpoints in place for those creating it.  

Brown, a first-year PhD student, is studying societal computing, also known as human, centered-computing, at University of Utah (U of U). Her research aims to find the best way to integrate a code of ethics into AI student courses.

“I want to teach students to be mindful of the potential consequences of their code and technical choices in creating AI technologies and algorithms. By analyzing students’ problem-solving and ethical thinking skills in AI coursework, I am working to explore effective and scalable ways that AI instructors can teach ethical and responsible AI disciplines,” she explains.

ARCS Scholar Michael Feffer

ARCS Scholar Michael Feffer is hoping to create and
provide safeguards into AI development that
ensure equitable outcomes in society.
(Courtesy: Michael Feffer) 

Her goal is similar to the research objectives of ARCS Scholar Michael Feffer, a first-year PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). He is also studying societal computing after learning about the potential harmful effects of artificial intelligence as an undergraduate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  “A ProPublica investigative journalist released a groundbreaking analysis that detailed how a biased, policing algorithm disproportionately predicted people of color as individuals likely to reoffend. The article also showed how a popular company had to shut down an AI developed internal resume screening after noticing it discriminated against women,” Feffer states.

Brown refers to the misuse of machine learning innovations as the ‘Wild West of AI.’

“In this quickly advancing field, there are few rules and standards for how this powerful technology should and should not be used,” she explains. “There have been many examples how AI systems have amplified discriminatory practices, spread misinformation, and harmed vulnerable communities. People need to be more mindful of their technological choices and calculations by considering the human impacts of AI.”

Brown and Feffer both admit their generation had a front row seat to the rapid advancement of Artificial Intelligence—and the privilege to use it during their teenage years. Technologies, such as Amazon, Alexa, Netflix, and video games allowed them to shop for a variety of items in one place, complete home tasks by speaking out loud, find new TV shows and music to enjoy through online streaming services and become immersed in virtual reality game just using a console. “Companies use AI daily to make decisions and improve the experience of their customers,” Brown explains. “These personalized experiences, productivity, and accessibility tools will continue to become more prevalent in our daily lives as AI technology continues to advance.”

ARCS Scholar Noelle Brown

ARCS Scholar Noelle Brown is a PhD student at 
University of Utah studying societal computing.
(Courtesy: Noelle Brown)

She believes her research will change the educational process of AI by creating effective assignments, so students learn ethical, decision-making skills from the start. “I am hopeful that awareness, combined with ethics education, will allow future technology leaders to maximize the benefits that AI contributes to our society, while minimizing the harm that can be caused,” Brown says.

Feffer’s research involves the interactions between artificial intelligence and society with a focus on incorporating the “general public” into model-building decisions and processes. “I want to provide safeguards on the development of AI and make its outcomes more equitable and beneficial to people without negatively affecting others. I want to hold AI-based corporations more accountable for their decisions,” he explains.   

Feffer and Brown both became ARCS Scholar award recipients in 2021 at their respective universities. The PhD students say ARCS provided additional support as they began their data-intensive studies. “I am extremely grateful for ARCS. I can focus more on my research and less on any financial stress. That makes a huge difference for PhD students,” Brown states.

Feffer agrees. “The financial security of ARCS Scholar award helped me dive into my studies and begin my PhD program with confidence.”

Artificial Intelligence