By Kristen Mitchell
A group from the George Washington University Ph.D. fellows spend the summer exploring what it means to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges at the intersection of computer science and systems engineering, where questions about artificial intelligence and the implementation of machine learning can impact the lives of everyday people.
Seven fellows of the GW School of Engineering and Applied Sciences participate in a 10-week research formulation summer bootcamp. The bootcamp is part of the Co-Design of Trustworthy AI Systems (DTAIS) program, supported by a $3 million grant awarded last year by the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program. The program brings together faculties from the SEAS Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering (EMSE) and the Department of Computer Science (CS) to develop a transformative model for graduate education training that combines research in computer science and systems engineering to support the next generation of leaders and researchers exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) is used in real-life contexts.
Zoe SzajnfarberDTAIS lead researcher, professor and chair of the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering, said today’s students should be prepared to take advantage of the power of AI while reducing potential risks and embedded biases.
“To address the cluttered, in-between issues so critical to deploying systems that can take full advantage of the opportunities for AI to transform society for good, without accidentally introducing some of the scary risks that can come with it.” , we want the fellows to both dive deep into their chosen field and also have enough appreciation for what the other discipline(s) are doing to bridge them,” she said. “That’s a really big challenge, both to get the necessary to have the knowledge to speak even across disciplinary boundaries, but also to find out what those problems are.”
Erica Worthamdirector of the SEAS Innovation Center, is the chief instructor of the bootcamp. Robert Plessdepartment chair of computer science and the Patrick and Donna Martin professor of computer science, Rachelle Hellerdirector of the SEAS Center for Women in Engineering and emeritus professor of computer science, and Ekundayo ShittuEMSE associate professor, are co-investigators of the DTAIS program. Additional affiliated faculty include: Tim WoodCS associate professor; Arkady YerukhimovichCS assistant professor; Erica Grala, EMSE associate professor; and David BroniatowskiEMSE associate professor.
The bootcamp was intended to take the program’s first cohort fellows out of their comfort zone to explore areas of critical importance and delve into the types of exciting intermediate challenges that could spark ideas for future research, Szajnfarber said. It is inspired by people-oriented design, which places a strong emphasis on solving the right problem. For that reason, fellows and faculty mentors met experts from three different organizations, representing three pillars of research areas to which the team aims to contribute. This provided the opportunity to explore concrete examples demonstrating how individuals and entities struggle with decisions about how AI and machine learning tools can transform work across application areas.
The fellows met representatives from Comcast, who came to the Foggy Bottom campus to talk about the AI applications used in technology, such as voice-activated TV remotes and home security cameras. The fellows also visited the federally funded research and development site of the MITER Corporation in Tysons Corner, Virginia, where they were able to visit labs focused on experiments with autonomous vehicles and air traffic control.
Finally, the fellows visited members of Virginia Task Force 1, a national and international disaster relief resource sponsored by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. They spoke to experts, including GW associate professor Joseph Barbarato learn about the different elements that contribute to a successful search and rescue situation and potential opportunities for AI to support their operations.
“With these three different touchpoints with the industry, we’ve had time with researchers considering how and if they can introduce AI into their systems, as well as experts already using it and talking about the issues they’re experiencing,” said Cody Dunn, program manager. for DTAIS.
Following those revelations, the fellows met to discuss the challenges presented and what they learned. They spent hours making connections between the various interactions, mulling over possible solutions to which they could uniquely contribute.
Dan Koban, a Ph.D. student in systems engineering, said it was an insightful experience to be exposed to different use cases for AI and talk through the different challenges with other fellows.
“It’s great to see practical applications of all these things that we study,” he said. “It gives you a really useful context for understanding what’s really going on.”
David Balash, a Ph.D. student of computer science, said the NRT program was helpful in creating a space to bounce ideas around with fellow students and think about new areas of research to explore.
“Having that cohort or that community has really had a good impact,” he said. “It has also given me the opportunity to expand the people I work with.”
Fellows will spend the rest of the bootcamp refining their field of research and working together to refine their ideas with each other and the faculty. Ideally, the fellows will conclude the summer with a series of practices for conducting interdisciplinary research that will benefit them for the rest of their time at the university. The bootcamp, like the general DTAIS program, emphasizes the importance of bringing different perspectives together to build a research ecosystem focused on solving convergent challenges.
The tipping point of AI
AI tools have evolved at an unusually fast pace over the past decade. They have been deployed in environments where value maximization precedes regulation, and these tools impact every area of life.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve moved from thinking that computing and AI will solve many of the world’s problems to the realization that it creates a whole new set of problems,” Pless said. “We need to build the technology to address and address those issues.”
This current moment is a tipping point, Szajnfarber said, representing both huge opportunities and significant risks.
Researchers in computer science and systems engineering tend to face challenges in different ways. By bringing these disciplines together, the Co-Design of Trustworthy AI Systems program aims to inspire fellows to confront questions with non-traditional solution methods. Different ways of thinking can be critical to minimizing damage and ensuring systems are reliable, equitable and fair.
The school’s ‘engineering and’ philosophy emphasizes the societal context in which engineering and computer science are practiced – an important understanding that will help prepare students to become leaders and cultivators of confidence in an increasingly AI-driven world. Through collaboration between SEAS departments and GW in general, as well as connecting with external research and industry leaders only possible in Washington, DC, the program is well positioned to meet the challenge of empowering tomorrow’s leaders in the field, Pless said.
“DC is a place where so many people try to work hard to solve problems,” Pless said. “That’s what this is.”