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Biplav Srivastava Applies Artificial Intelligence to Real-World Challenges

Biplav Srivastava CASY event in October 2020.
Biplav Srivastava organized a virtual/in-person event in October 2020 on the ethical use of digital assistants like chatbots.
Photo credit: Abe Danaher

One of Biplav Srivastava’s long-term goals is to help people use technology to solve the problems they face. This wasn’t always his top priority, though – for many years after completing his Ph.D., he didn’t really worry about connecting his research to real-world impacts. Then, he says, he started to become very concerned that while his work was having significant commercial success, “it meant nothing on the street… it has limited value if you can’t see it around you.”

Srivastava is a 2020-21 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow and last July, he became a professor of computer science at the University of South Carolina’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute after many years at IBM. Starting in 2011 while still at IBM, he began applying his knowledge of AI to sustainability projects around the world, particularly related to developing smarter cities through addressing issues like water access, electricity, transportation, and public health. One example of this work is Water Advisor, a chat-based tool he and his team at IBM developed, which uses machine learning techniques to help users easily find information about water quality in different locations.

This turn towards impact-oriented research eventually led Srivastava to the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute, which supports scientists and engineers in public engagement that has broader societal impacts. The fellowship cohorts are focused on science and engineering issues with societal significance. And the importance of AI, the focus of Srivastava’s cohort, only increased with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when AI was put to use in multitude of response efforts. Srivastava put together a collection of resources on AI and COVID, and created a tool to analyze the effect of mask-wearing. He is featured in a video and article on The Conversation about this tool, which can calculate, for specific locations, how many lives were saved or lost depending on when mask mandates were implemented – showing that early mandates had exponentially greater benefits.

As one of his key activities for the public engagement fellowship, Srivastava organized a hybrid virtual/in-person event at his university in October 2020 to promote the ethical use of digital assistants in society. It brought together perspectives on data-driven decision support from across the science, engineering, and societal aspects of AI technologies. Six additional Leshner Fellows from the AI cohort spoke on a panel about the role of AI in handling COVID-19 at universities and in communities, and Emily Therese Cloyd, director of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science, introduced the Leshner Leadership Institute. Srivastava reports that people from across the university are now thinking about how they can work together. Several proposals have arisen as a result, as well as follow-on events including organizing an AI summer program for high school students.

Moving forward, Srivastava has several related goals -- he is interested in open data collaborations, and has spoken with the local government in Columbia, South Carolina, where his university is located, about the possibility of making more of their data public. Although the local government doesn’t currently have the capacity to do this, his vision is to eventually create fun, competitive events for students to try to solve local problems using local data – such as prioritizing which water pipes need to be replaced. However, he also wants to promote the message that while AI can be extremely useful, it can’t solve everything in isolation: it has to be developed in conversation with end users and the public more broadly, so that it works for the people it’s intended to serve.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.