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Lyle Ungar Engages Policymakers, Big Tech, and the Public with Op-Ed, Online Classes, and Informal Conversations

White man with glasses and beard leaning against wall
Lyle Ungar was a 2020-21 fellow of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science.
Photo credit: University of Pennsylvania

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Lyle Ungar, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2020-21 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, was concerned with how to get people good, fact-based advice about mask-wearing, especially once he realized mask availability was not the problem. Eventually he got in touch with two other professors at the University of Pennsylvania: Angela Duckworth, a behavioral psychologist, and Ezekiel Emanuel, professor of health care management, medical ethics and health policy. Together they published an op-ed in the New York Times in May 2020 laying out basic, actionable suggestions for making mask-wearing easy, understood, and expected. “What can psychology tell us?” says Ungar, who also has an appointment in the psychology department. “People have spent decades studying which interventions work and which don’t… It’s obvious now after the fact, but you definitely don’t tell people, ‘Don’t be stupid, wear a mask.’”

Over the course of his year as a Leshner Fellow, during which fellows are encouraged to develop or deepen their public engagement efforts, grounded in best practices for science communication and engagement, Ungar also became involved with a project to bring high-quality information on machine learning and ethics to an international audience. The NeuroMatch Academy is a new platform providing free, crowdsourced courses and activities using local teaching assistants and in-person study groups along with the online lectures. Ungar has found it rewarding to bring up conversations about ethics with the technical material, such as having Chinese and American students discussing their respective views about surveillance.

“You find something that is a shared [technical] interest, like how facial recognition works,” Ungar explains, “and then while we are at it, let’s talk about how people are using it and how they feel about it.” He has also benefited from working with an ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania on some of the materials he uses in his regular classes at the university, which he is now bringing online for free through the NeuroMatch Academy.  

In other engagement activities, Ungar has informally advised people from both the technology and government sectors on the challenges of censoring online hate speech. A Twitter representative and the Facebook Oversight Board both reached out to him for input, and he has also spoken with various policymakers who come to his university, through his role as a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. His goal for these conversations, which AAAS asks fellows to articulate for themselves with each engagement, is largely to help each party see the difficulty of the problem from the other perspective – in other words, hate speech isn’t an easy problem to fix, yet this doesn’t mean the platforms should abdicate responsibility.

Toward the end of Ungar’s AAAS fellowship, he participated in virtual visits to Capitol Hill organized by the AAAS Office of Government Relations. He found these visits and the prep sessions useful particularly for better understanding the process of engaging with policymakers, including that “timing is everything” and that “like in marketing, you have to find the pain point. It wasn’t so obvious to me before how that applies to public outreach and talking to people in government.”

Ungar also appreciated seeing how legislative staff view U.S. technological competition with China, “whether AI research is a zero-sum, winner-take-all game,” or if it offers a chance for strengthening ties between the countries. Ungar believes U.S. funding agencies are not dedicating sufficient resources toward considering the sociopolitical and cultural context in which AI and other technology is developed and implemented (i.e., investigating questions like why the U.S. population is excited or hesitant about different technological developments compared to other countries, and how different views of the role of government regulation affect technology development). Since the virtual Hill visits, he has been discussing this need with various upper-level colleagues at his university including with his funders at the Penn China Research and Engagement Fund  and suggesting they raise it in meetings with their government contacts, which they have been happy to do.

In reflecting on the fellowship, Ungar noted that “the peer work was incredibly valuable… it is super useful to have discussions with one’s peers and see what they are doing.”

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.