An Interdisciplinary Approach to Artificial Intelligence

The AI4All 2019 class with program organizers on a field trip to Princeton University.

They could have been at the beach enjoying the summer. Instead, high school students gathered from across New York City and New Jersey for the AI4All program hosted by the Columbia community. The students came to learn about artificial intelligence (AI) but this program had a special twist – computer science (CS) and social work concepts were combined for a deeper, more meaningful look at AI.

“We created a space for young people to think critically about the social implications of artificial intelligence for the communities that they live in,” said Desmond Patton, the program co-director and associate professor of the School of Social Work. “We wanted them to understand how things like race, power, privilege and oppression can be baked into algorithms and their adverse effects on communities.”

The AI4All 2019 class with program organizers on a field trip to LinkedIn.

The program participants, composed of 9th, 10th and 11th graders, are from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in AI: Black, Hispanic, and Asian. Girls as well as youth from lower-income backgrounds were particularly encouraged to apply. For three weeks the students attended lectures, went on field trips to visit local companies (LinkedIn and Samsung) involved in the program, and visited other AI4All programs, like at Princeton University. Their work culminated in a final project which they presented to their classmates, mentors, and industry professionals. 

“I believe that it is important to bring more ethics to AI,” said Augustin Chaintreau, the program co-director and a CS assistant professor. He sees ethics integrated into technical concepts and taught at the same time. Instead of learning about the social consequences and fixing it after, to solve an issue. Shared Chaintreau, “It shouldn’t be thought about just in passing but as a central part of why this is a tool and its implications.”

An interdisciplinary approach to AI was even part of how the classes were structured. Technical CS concepts, such as machine learning and Python, were taught in the morning by professors and student volunteers. While in the afternoon, guest speakers came to talk about their perspective to the day’s lesson. So, on the same day, students learned about supervised and unsupervised learning, and in the afternoon, someone who was formerly incarcerated described how the criminal policing that survey people on social media had a role in making a case against them.

Genesis Lopez (center, in black) in class.

“We were learning college courses meant to be taught in a month but for us it was just a couple of weeks and that was really impressive,” said Genesis Lopez, who is part of the robotics team at her school. Lopez loves robotics but works more on the mechanical side. She goes back to the team knowing how to use Python and is confident she can step up and code if needed. Continued Lopez, “I learned a lot but my favorite part was the people, we became a family.”

Fadi Biadsy (PhD ’11) Develops Tool to Help People with Atypical Speech Patterns

Most people take for granted that when they speak, they will be heard and understood. But for the millions who live with speech impairments caused by physical or neurological conditions, trying to communicate with others can be difficult and lead to frustration. While there have been a great number of recent advances in automatic speech recognition (ASR; a.k.a. speech-to-text) technologies, these interfaces can be inaccessible for those with speech impairments. Further, applications that rely on speech recognition as input for text-to-speech synthesis (TTS) can exhibit word substitution, deletion, and insertion errors. Critically, in today’s technological environment, limited access to speech interfaces, such as digital assistants that depend on directly understanding one’s speech, means being excluded from state-of-the-art tools and experiences, widening the gap between what those with and without speech impairments can access. 

Exploring The Intersection Of AI And Philosophy

Kara Schechtman (CC ‘19) has been selected as one of the recipients of the Senator George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program to pursue a one-year postgraduate degree in Ireland. The fellowship is awarded to 12 individuals between the ages of 18 and 30 by the US-Ireland Alliance. Schechtman is headed to Trinity College Dublin where she will study philosophy.

“Artificial intelligence is advancing and we are at a point where ethics has to be considered,” said Schechtman, who is majoring in English and computer science at Columbia. “I believe studying philosophy will help me prepare for further studies in computer science.”

A point of frustration for her has been finding an area in computer science where both the humanities and computing overlap in a way that fits her interests. In artificial intelligence (AI), computing and philosophical questions can overlap, an intersection she finds fulfilling.

The development of AI poses a whole gamut of challenges to humanity, ranging from legislation challenges, to AI bias, to ethical concerns about potential machine consciousness, and even to potential existential threat. But these challenges have remained while the technical developments of AI has grown leaps and bounds.

One thing Schechtman hopes to answer through her studies is how society can act responsibly despite all that is unknown. “I think it also demands technical expertise to suggest actionable paths for responsibility now,” continued Schechtman. “Which is why it is so important for computer scientists and philosophers to work together, and for some people to study both.”

The Ireland location of the fellowship is also ideal. Dublin hosts the European Union headquarters of a number of tech giants. And having double majored in English, she looks forward to “nerding out” over Samuel Beckett and James Joyce in their home country.

“More broadly, the circumstances couldn’t be better — the other fellowship recipients seem amazing and I can’t wait to get to know them better, Trinity College Dublin is a wonderful school, and I am sure I will have a lot of fun exploring Ireland. I’m excited to grow from the experience in ways I don’t yet even expect,” said Schechtman.

AI For Humanity: Using AI To Make A Positive Impact In Developing Countries

Artificial intelligence (AI) has seeped into the daily lives of people in the developed world. From virtual assistants to recommendation engines, AI is in the news, our homes and offices. There is a lot of untapped potential in terms of AI usage, especially in humanitarian areas. The impact could have a multiplier effect in developing countries, where resources are limited. By leveraging the power of AI, businesses, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and governments can solve life-threatening problems and improve the livelihood of local communities in the developing world.