Teaching Underrepresented Teenagers to Understand AI and Use It For Good

Columbia will host a summer program for underrepresented high school students that will teach them the fundamentals of artificial intelligence (AI) as well as how to navigate the ethical and moral questions surrounding the technology.  

Two professors affiliated with the Data Science Institute will co-direct the summer program and develop the “data for good” curriculum. They'll work in partnership with Al4ALL, a nonprofit that funds programs to increase gender and racial diversity in high-tech fields such as AI. Columbia Al4ALL will admit 20 incoming 10th graders from the New York City area for a program scheduled for July 8-July 26. Registration will open soon and applications will be available here. The camp will be based at Columbia.  
 
The hope is that students in the Al4ALL program will cultivate an interest in AI; learn to use it as a tool to address problems in their communities; and later to consider pursuing high-tech careers, thereby helping to diversify a workforce that’s mostly now white men. A diverse AI workforce may also lead to the development of AI products that contain less bias, a growing problem in the field. Without diverse voices and talents, a uniform workforce sometimes produces AI products with unintended bias. We run the risk, for instance, of feeding computers data that lack diverse perspectives and information, the results of which are biased AI systems, says Desmond Patton, Associate Professor at Columbia’s School of Social Work and member of the Data Science Institute (DSI). And now that AI-algorithms routinely make decisions about who is invited to job interviews, who is eligible for a mortgage, and who is a candidate for surveillance by law enforcement, using data for good becomes an ethical problem for all of us, says Patton. In the highest profile example of bias in AI, he adds, a study found that an AI algorithm used by parole officials to predict the likelihood of criminals reoffending showed bias against African-Americans. 
 
“That’s why we need diverse opinions, perspectives, and ideas to have equitable technology experiences,” says Patton, who combines an interest in data science with a focus on violence prevention and social justice. “Individuals of colors are dramatically missing from AI development, training, and jobs. I believe Al4ALL is instrumental in changing that, which is why we are delighted to have our first Al4ALL program hosted this summer at Columbia.”
 
Patton founded a similar summer program at Columbia in 2017 called the Digital Scholars Lab. He wanted to bring another like-minded program to Columbia and by doing some research found Al4ALL. The first camp this summer will serve students from the New York City area, but thereafter will expand into a national program enrolling students from across the U.S. 
 
“Columbia has great resources in data science, social work, and AI and the students will be exposed to the greatest thinkers in these respective fields,” Patton says. “It’s a great opportunity for disadvantaged students to get a leg up on this cutting-edge technology and learn to use it ethically and to the benefit of their communities.”
 
Augustin Chaintreau, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Columbia who will co-direct the program with Patton, says he entered computer science in 1998, when the Internet was reshaping the world. He and his colleagues talked then about the ethics of computing, he recalls, but the talk centered around technical problems such as how to equitably share applications. When he realized a few years later, though, that “personal data – how we collect and use them – would lead to a tectonic change in our lives,” he chose to become a university professor. 
 
“That’s the only position from which I can interact with students in so many disciplines and help them understand what’s at stake ethically in contemporary computing and AI and how to frame those moral questions,” says Chaintreau, who is also a member of DSI. “Today, who gets to understand and design AI products is  a small group  of people with a great deal of  concentrated power. By hosting the Al4All program this summer, we hope to make the field of AI more inclusive, equitable and democratic.” 
 
Tiffany Shumate, Director of University Partnerships at Al4ALL, which recently posted a Q&A with Patton and Chaintreau, says her organization is delighted to have Columbia as a host institution.
 
“We’re excited to expand AI4ALL to Columbia this summer,” says Shumate. “The Columbia Al4ALL program will have an interdisciplinary focus, highlighting research at the intersection of artificial intelligence, social work, and data science. Dr. Patton's work on centering the voices of young people in violence prevention work, combined with Dr. Chaintreau's work on data and fairness, are closely aligned with Al4ALL’s mission to open the doors to AI for marginalized and underrepresented voices. Al4ALL programs help students see themselves as leaders, and we look forward to working with Columbia on empowering NYC-area youth to use artificial intelligence in ways that address the problems they care about.”
 
By Robert Florida


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