From Good Systems Outgoing Executive Team Chair and Founding Member Kenneth Fleischmann:
Interdisciplinarity runs in my blood. I have degrees in computer science, anthropology, and science and technology studies along with a faculty appointment as a professor in the School of Information. However, I never imagined having the opportunity to be involved in interdisciplinary research at the scale that I have with Good Systems.
It has been a pleasure and honor to have had the opportunity to be involved in the grand challenge from the start as the executive team’s founding chair. As I prepare to pass the torch to Chair-Elect Junfeng Jiao, associate professor in the School of Architecture, I can’t help but reflect on how amazing it has been to collaborate with such a diverse array of exceptionally talented colleagues from across campus. I have been studying the ethics of AI for over 20 years — going back to when I was a student — yet I could not have realized this topic would achieve the level of recognition to become the focus of a campus-wide research grand challenge.
Most research projects focus on a singular or very narrow set of research questions. Given the increasing importance of AI in our everyday lives, understanding the ethics of AI goes beyond what is possible within one research project. Thus, it is indeed a worthy focus for a grand challenge. Grand challenges involve thorny issues with significant intellectual and societal implications that require collaboration across many fields to make substantial advances. Simply understanding the algorithms that form the basis of AI-based technologies does not, by itself, prepare one to anticipate the implications of how people will interact with that AI. Similarly, knowing the implications of AI alone does not equip one to improve its design.
We are fortunate at the University of Texas at Austin to have tremendous strengths in many fields, including — but not limited to — the social sciences, the humanities, and technical fields. As a grand challenge, Good Systems has facilitated collaborations among faculty with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise to further its goals.
I have been studying the ethics of AI for over 20 years — going back to when I was a student — yet I could not have realized this topic would achieve the level of recognition to become the focus of a campus-wide research grand challenge.
Over the past two years, we have made strong progress toward achieving the grand challenge of designing AI technologies that benefit society. In this time, we have funded 21 research projects, including everything from mapping health risk for certain diseases by specific census tract to evaluating the racial and cultural sensitivity of AI-based digital assistants like Siri and Alexa.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the U.S., Good Systems researchers answered the charge to help. Our teams have conducted research in numerous areas, including a project funded by the National Science Foundation through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to improve public trust in health communication during the pandemic.
Good Systems research has also been funded by corporations and foundations. For example, Microsoft Research funded a project using AI to empower people who are blind or have low vision, and Cisco Research Center is supporting a project about the ethical, legal, and policy dimensions of AI. We also received support from Micron Foundation to use AI to address the growing issue of disinformation.
In March, the Public Interest Technology University Network hosted a conference here at UT about Informatics Education, which was attended by faculty members from 30 institutions of higher education as well as from industry, government, and nonprofits. Research funded and inspired by Good Systems has also led to publications in top outlets, as well as awards recognizing the societal impact of our research, such as the Civic Futures Award for Designing for the 100% and the MetroLab Innovation of the Month for July 2020. It has been exciting to collaborate on these projects with colleagues in the School of Information, the College of Liberal Arts, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the Moody College of Communication, the School of Nursing, the University of Michigan School of Information, and the City of Austin, along with four outstanding junior colleagues in the School of Information.
I am excited about the future of Good Systems, as we are well-positioned to pursue interdisciplinary research and education that can lead to productive human-AI partnerships, especially in the exceptionally capable hands of Chair-Elect Junfeng Jiao. Over the past year, Junfeng and I have worked closely together to ensure a successful transition. We helped facilitate a research partnership with the City of Austin that has led to seven research projects that involve collaborations between UT researchers and City of Austin staff, including optimizing EMS response during extreme events and using AI to help people experiencing homelessness. We are excited that the City of Austin has recently taken action to further broaden its collaborations with UT. Given Junfeng’s expertise in urban planning and smart cities, he is perfectly positioned to further develop this collaboration.
Simply understanding the algorithms that form the basis of AI-based technologies does not, by itself, prepare one to anticipate the implications of how people will interact with that AI. Similarly, knowing the implications of AI alone does not equip one to improve its design.
Recently, we also designed eight research focus areas that will help guide Good Systems’ future research directions. These include critical perspectives on surveillance, disinformation, the future of work, public interest technology, racial and social justice, robotics and machine learning, smart cities, and transparent and explainable AI. And we brought on board eight fantastic research directors to lead them.
Junfeng also has successfully led the development of a new undergraduate Bridging Disciplines Program on Smart Cities, which I am delighted to participate in alongside many other Good Systems researchers. In addition, I have developed a new class in Ethics of AI that I first piloted in the School of Information, then had the opportunity to co-teach alongside Junfeng as an undergraduate Signature Course. I am excited to see how Junfeng will further develop this course in its next iteration. Good Systems means a great deal to me, so it is wonderful to know that the leadership of this grand challenge will be in his capable hands.
From Good Systems Executive Team Chair-Elect and Founding Member Junfeng Jiao:
Thank you, Ken, for everything that you have done for Good Systems. I truly appreciate your leadership during this all-important inaugural year. Our accomplishments would not have been possible without your guidance and effort.
Good Systems is indeed already making tremendous progress toward our grand challenge goal, and we are well positioned to build on our prior success in the coming year.
Recently, the National Science Foundation announced it had chosen UT as the new home for its AI Institute for Foundations of Machine Learning, which will position the university to build upon its existing strengths in this important emerging field. Good Systems will play an important role in the new venture, as the institute’s AI Ethics partner. UT is also establishing a permanent base for machine learning research called the Machine Learning Laboratory, which will house the new AI institute. It will bring together computer and data scientists, mathematicians, roboticists, engineers and ethicists to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects. The institute and Machine Learning Laboratory’s new director, computer science professor Adam Klivans, will also serve as the Research Director for the Good Systems Research Focus Area of Robotics and Machine Learning.
The research focus areas will be a terrific vehicle for further broadening the interdisciplinarity of Good Systems and will expand our research portfolio, particularly through collaborations with the Cockrell School of Engineering, the College of Natural Sciences, and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. Our collaboration with the City of Austin has the potential to significantly expand collaboration between UT and the city and will help to ensure that the research that we pursue in Good Systems can directly benefit the residents of Austin.
We are also making important progress in translating our research into the classroom as well. I am excited to have the opportunity to lead such an extremely talented and diverse research team, and I am excited about what Good Systems will be able to accomplish in the coming year and beyond. As a UT Grand Challenge, what starts in Good Systems will change the world!
Please join us on this journey.
Good Systems is a research grand challenge at The University of Texas at Austin. We’re a team of information and computer scientists, robotics experts, engineers, humanists and philosophers, policy and communication scholars, architects, and designers. Our goal over the next eight years is to design AI technologies that benefit society. Follow us on Twitter, join us at our events, and come back to our blog for updates.
Kenneth R. Fleischmann, Ph.D., professor in the School of Information, is the Founding Chair of the Executive Team for Good Systems, a UT Grand Challenge. He studies the ethical complexities of AI and ways to identify and mitigate AI bias, especially in relation to already disadvantaged groups. He is leading a research project funded by the National Science Foundation that aims to determine the factors that influence trust in public health information during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Junfeng Jiao, Ph.D., is the Chair-Elect for Good Systems and an associate professor in the Community and Regional Planning program in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founding director of UT’s Urban Information Lab. Jiao’s research focus is on urban informatics, smart cities, and shared mobility.