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) technology as well as how to understand the ethical 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 in partnership with AI4ALL, a nonprofit that funds programs to increase gender and racial diversity in high-tech fields such as AI. Columbia AI4ALL will admit 20 rising 10th graders from the New York City area in a program scheduled for July 8-July 26 at Columbia. Registration will open soon and applications will be available here.

The hope is that students in the A14ALL program will cultivate an interest in AI; learn to use it as a tool to address problems in their communities that they care about; and go on to pursue high-tech careers, thereby diversifying a workforce that’s now mostly white men. A diverse AI workforce may also likely lead to the development of AI products that contain less bias, a growing problem in the field. Without diverse voices and talents, a workforce lacking diversity may have unintended consequences and bias. We run the risk, for instance, of feeding computers data that lack diverse perspectives, and the results, in turn, may be biased, 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, it becomes an ethical problem for all of society, says Patton. In possibly the highest profile example of bias in AI, he adds, a study found that an AI algorithm used by parole officials in the U.S. to predict the likelihood of criminals reoffending was biased against African-Americans.

“That’s why we need diverse opinions, perspectives, and ideas to have equitable technology experiences,” says Patton, who combines his 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 AI4ALL is instrumental in changing that, which is why we are delighted to have our first A14ALL summer program hosted at Columbia.”

Patton founded a similar summer program at Columbia in 2017 called the Digital Scholars Lab, which was highly successful. He wanted to bring another like-minded program to Columbia, and by doing some research found AI4ALL, which will begin with New York City area students but thereafter expand to become a national program.

“Columbia has great resources in data science, social work, and AI and the students in our program 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 Assistant 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, but the talk centered around technical problems such as how to share various applications equitably, he says. When he realized a few years later that “personal data – how we collect and use them – would lead to a tectonic change in our lives,” he chose to become a 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 AI4All program this summer we hope to make the field of AI more inclusive, equitable and democratic.”

Tiffany Shumate, AI4ALL’s Director of University Partnerships, says her organization, which published a Q&A with Patton and Chaintreau, is delighted to have Columbia as a host institution for its summer programs.

“We’re excited to expand AI4ALL to Columbia University this summer,” says Shumate. “The Columbia AI4ALL program will have an interdisciplinary focus, highlighting research at the intersection of artificial intelligence, social work, and data science. Dr. Patton’s work to center the voices of young people in violence prevention work, combined with Dr. Chaintreau’s work on data and fairness, are closely aligned with AI4ALL’s mission to open the doors to AI for marginalized and underrepresented voices. AI4ALL programs help students see themselves as leaders and solution creators. We’re looking forward to working with Columbia University to empower NYC-area youth to use artificial intelligence to address problems they care about.”

— Robert Florida, Data Science Institute

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