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AI Experts Begin Engagement Efforts as Leshner Fellows

 2020-21 Leshner Leadership Institute fellows
The twelve Leshner Leadership Institute fellows represent a range of scientific disciplines related to artificial intelligence. | Courtesy of pictured

Researchers studying artificial intelligence (AI) have embarked upon a yearlong fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science, taking with them lessons from an intensive orientation to more effectively communicate about and engage the public with science.

The 12 participants kicked off their fellowship year with a weeklong orientation during which they identified new opportunities for having conversations about artificial intelligence with the public and practiced engagement strategies to use going forward. The fellows also made plans for collaborating with one another.

“We know that there is a need for practical support for scientists who are doing effective public engagement,” Emily Therese Cloyd, director of AAAS’ Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, said to fellows during the June 8-12 orientation, which was held virtually for the first time in the program’s history in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Center has hosted the Leshner Leadership Institute fellowship since 2016 to empower mid-career scientists and engineers to strengthen their own public engagement and create new opportunities to connect with the public on science, whether it is through public events, online outreach or building relationships with policymakers and community leaders. Fellows also encourage other scientists and engineers, including leaders at their own institutions, to support and incentivize two-way dialogue with the public.

Each cohort of Leshner fellows is connected by a common area of study at the intersection of science and society. This year’s fellows represent a range of AI specialties, such as deep learning and robotics, and apply their work in a number of fields, including education, health care and security. Heather Lynch, for instance, uses satellite imagery and AI-powered monitoring tools to remotely study penguins in Antarctica.

“The fellows are so broad in their interests” which contributed to a “productive and thoughtful” orientation, said Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University who plans to expand her outreach efforts as a fellow by writing for public audiences in magazines.

Each fellow works throughout the year on several overarching goals, focused on their own public engagement activities and on boosting support for public engagement at an institution, such as their university department or professional society.

John Zimmerman, a professor of artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, is already working to help designers gain an understanding of AI so they can leverage its capabilities in their innovations. Yet, until beginning his fellowship, he had not thought of that audience as a target for his engagement.

“It really broadens my conception of what falls into the space of public engagement,” Zimmerman said.

Nicholas Mattei, an assistant professor of computer science at Tulane, is finishing a textbook for teaching technology ethics to undergraduate students but is now aiming to use the textbook as a platform for engagement. After taking part in the orientation and discussing opportunities with the Center for Public Engagement staff, he is aiming beyond the classroom and considering how he might use his book as a jumping-off point for public engagement by leveraging it to spur understanding and conversation.

“Being encouraged to think more broadly about that was incredibly useful,” said Mattei.

During small-group sessions guided by Center staff, fellows had a chance to identify and practice important strategies for communicating with the public, such as understanding their audience and using clear, precise language to reach them.

Cloyd emphasized the importance of knowing one’s audience and understanding their interests and their concerns. She urged fellows to engage in dialogue with their audiences – effective engagement, Cloyd noted, is not one-sided.

 “It’s so easy to slip into jargon and presuppose knowledge on the part of the person you’re talking to that they don’t have,” said Lyle Ungar, professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, who is planning conversations with decision-makers in health care about technology, AI and the challenges of information-sharing and privacy. Ungar noted the importance of accurate but understandable language about technology that can often be perceived as scary or confusing.

“I think a lot of people have this fear that their privacy will be violated in ways that are not technologically possible,” he said.

The orientation was also an opportunity for fellows to identify areas where they might come together and share resources and expertise. Several fellows are interested in writing popular science books, said Ungar, so they are interested in sharing the knowledge they acquire through the process, from writing to publishing to marketing, he said.

The Center will support fellows throughout the year by providing expertise, connecting fellows with engagement opportunities and offering to either lead a Communicating Science workshop at their institution or provide seed funding to support a public engagement project. Fellows can work collaboratively and pool these resources, but all fellows will draw from the connections they developed during the orientation week and continue to foster over their fellowship year.

“It was a super valuable kickoff to what I think will be an exciting year,” said Lynch of the orientation. “The starting gun has gone off and we can run down the field.”

[Associated image: Sergey/Adobe Stock]