Passing The Torch; Good Systems Rolls Out Core Research Projects

Good Systems
Sep 20 · 7 min read
Headshots for two University of Texas at Austin professors.
Community and Regional Planning Associate Professor Junfeng Jiao (left) passes his Good Systems Chair position to English Associate Professor Samuel Baker (right).

From our outgoing chair, Junfeng Jiao:

The events of the past year have left different marks on everyone’s lives. For some of us in Texas, these marks are especially deep. We have not only experienced the heartache of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the worst winter storm in almost a century. To say the least, the 2020–21 academic year was a very memorable one for all of us.

Both the pandemic and big freeze — and its subsequent statewide power and water outages — disrupted our lives, but we adapted, both on and off campus. As the chair of Good Systems, keeping our grand challenge activities going — and going strong — became its own major challenge. However, every crisis comes with an opportunity, and with the wonderful support of our Good Systems staff and our researchers, we took full advantage of both technology and personal drive to successfully advance our work, as well as host many virtual events, whereby we were able to reach people around the world who may not have been able to join us in person.

Among those events was our First Annual Symposium, which featured research collaborations between Good Systems and the City of Austin as well as with our partners from the UT-led Institute for Foundations of Machine Learning. We worked with UT’s McCombs School of Business to host the 2020 Global Analytics Summit: Ethics in AI, which focused on the multi-dimensional nature of algorithmic risks and biases. And we hosted A Week with the World Economic Forum, focusing on the government procurement guidelines of AI technology. It featured UT president Jay Hartzell and former colleague Kay Firth-Butterfield, now the head of the AI and ML group at the World Economic Forum and our co-sponsor for this event.

These stand-out events were just a few of many series and talks we hosted, in which we shared insights on public interest technology, disinformation, critical surveillance inquiry, smart city approaches, and the future of work. And Good Systems researchers appeared on NPR and at SXSW Interactive. Suffice it to say, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to share our knowledge with the world.

And this fall, we’ve received a $3 million NSF grant to design a new robotics program at UT, which will offer coursework and graduate research opportunities to learn about the ethical issues that arise when designing AI. Additionally, Good Systems researchers were awarded a $1 million NSF CIVIC innovation grant to build a smart transit hub in the Georgian Acres Neighborhood in Austin. The project is a collaboration with the City of Austin and the nonprofit Jail to Jobs and will serve as a model for how we might alleviate job and housing mismatches in disadvantaged areas so that people have more affordable transit options when commuting. The City of Austin also awarded additional funds to a team of our researchers who are using data science to evaluate the effectiveness of the Downtown Austin Community Court’s Intensive Case Management program, which help individuals experiencing homelessness achieve long-term stability. The goal is to make recommendations for improvements to the program that will help the individuals served access stable housing and appropriate behavioral health and social service supports, which in turn improves their overall quality of life. Additionally, Microsoft provided funding to support Good Systems researchers as they experiment with smart air pollution sensors, collecting data that will be used to predict pollution levels at UT and across Austin.

The newest development for our grand challenge, however, has been the launching of six core research projects. Through these, we aim to define, evaluate, and build ethical AI systems in the areas of robotics, smart tools, and smart cities while addressing the social ills of disinformation, racial injustice, and intrusive surveillance. These six-year projects, like all of our projects to date, include researchers from different disciplines across UT. They will be capstone endeavors that synthesize what we’ve learned so far while strengthening our existing collaborations with the City of Austin and industry leaders. They will form the foundation of Good Systems going forward. Over time, we’ll post more stories about the core research projects, invite participation in new events and share our findings with you.

Each of these core projects presents a coherent body of work to undertake and, moreover, a diverse, well-organized team dedicated to bridging barriers in the service of society .

As I retire from my role as the Good Systems chair, I want to say how tremendously thankful I am to be a part of such an amazing team of researchers. And I am excited to pass the torch to Sam Baker, associate professor in the Department of English and a founding member of Good Systems. Sam has done as much as anyone to extend our network across campus and has helped lead many important Good Systems activities, including the Graduate Student COVID-19 Research Group and the Bad AI and Beyond project, which looked at how media shapes public perceptions of AI. I am looking forward to seeing how he will lead the grand challenge in its next iteration. Good Systems means a great deal to me, as it does to all our founding members, so I am happy to know that the leadership of this grand challenge will be in his capable hands.

From our incoming chair, Sam Baker:

Thank you so much, Junfeng, for your many — and ongoing — contributions to Good Systems and to the university. One of your main initiatives as chair of Good Systems was to convene a virtual planning retreat recently. At the retreat, our executive team, together with our key administrators, reviewed where we’ve been and plotted where we’ll go next. We were struck by the significance of this past year’s main achievement: the crystallization of our research efforts, through an intricate planning process, into the six Good Systems core research projects Junfeng mentioned.

Each of these core projects presents a coherent body of work to undertake and, moreover, a diverse, well-organized team dedicated to bridging barriers in the service of society. These projects, like the one-year seed-funding projects that came before, will give rise to still broader programs of grant- and foundation-funded research. In that sense, they are not like ships that have left harbor, but more like worksites here on campus where more hands will be welcome — and needed — to join the effort. We invite more UT colleagues, potential government and industry partners, and community organizations to join us and advance this new set of endeavors.

I love researching and teaching literature because I believe novels, poems, and memoirs give meaning to the world and our lives. But to understand stories about people, we need to understand the technologies that our stories describe and the technologies that communicate those stories. I can appreciate that, in Good Systems, while we usually have technology in the foreground, we take care to keep people and their stories in the forefront of our thinking as well. This is critical so that we can assess the full measure of how technology is transforming society and of how broad-based conversations about values can affect technology development.

A major lesson we’ve learned through our work so far is that we, as researchers, must enlist people outside of academia to help us as we imagine these new technologies. Our grand challenge team tries to include industry and civic partners in what we do from before our projects begin, because those partners — who will be around long after our projects end — will be the ones using our findings to make advancements in AI in a more responsible and ethical way. This is why we are continually soliciting input from government and industry groups at our events and in our work. It is important that we keep an open dialogue with our partners and forge a model that can be used to make emergent human-AI systems better for people around the world.

This spring, we’ll host our Second Annual Symposium of Good Systems, where we’ll introduce our core research projects and share news and findings from our first two years of projects. Other exciting speaker series and events will also be announced soon, including seminars jointly sponsored with UT’s Institute for Foundations of Machine Learning. In the 2021–22 academic year, we will also introduce a broader-than-ever array of Good Systems-sponsored and affiliated courses on campus. I’m excited to be involved with such a vibrant, growing community of scholars as we continue to take on the grand challenge of creating AI that benefits society. Thank you for being a part of it with us.

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.

Junfeng Jiao, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Community and Regional Planning program and founding director of Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. His research focuses on urban informatics, smart city and shared mobility. He coined the term “transit desert” and measured it in all major US cities. Jiao is a founding member of the Good Systems Executive Team and co-lead of the Good Systems for Smart Cities core research project, which brings together researchers, industry professionals, and other stakeholders to support research innovation and investigate how operationalizing technologies will affect our day-to-day life.

Samuel Baker, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin and is also a Junior Fellow of the British Studies Program, and frequently teaches for Plan II Honors.He is a founding member of the Executive Team for Good Systems and chair for 2021–22. His research interests include British Romantic poetry; historical fiction, science fiction, and the gothic novel; media studies, informatics, the environmental humanities, and the cultural analysis of the built environment now becoming known as infrastructure studies. Sam is currently a leader of the “Living and Working With Robots” core research project, which explores how to put humans at the center of AI development.

Good Systems

Designing AI that benefits society is our grand challenge.