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Michael Littman Views AAAS Public Engagement Fellowship as a Lighthouse Illuminating His Goals

Michael Littman is a 2020-21 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow
Michael Littman engages with the public through lighthearted videos, among other activities.
Photo credit: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Michael Littman, professor of computer science at Brown University, has always enjoyed making videos that bring levity -- and sometimes lyrics -- to serious topics like the application and implications of artificial intelligence (AI). This past year, as a fellow of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science, he has focused on strategically targeting his videos toward specific audiences.

It can take some time to figure out exactly who those audiences are, and for video projects to come together. Littman had been thinking intermittently about making videos on interesting aspects of AI and computer science when he met an independent filmmaker through a mutual friend. She suggested the idea of six six-minute videos as a compromise: short enough to hold people’s interest on the internet, and long enough to present something with some technical depth. He liked this structure, so spent several months outlining six topics and another several months writing scripts. With Brown University’s production team, he had just begun filming the scripts as conversations between himself and his friend and colleague Charles Isbell, dean of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the university could no longer provide these services. 

However, Littman and Isbell later successfully aired numerous other remote video conversations, including a series where they discuss the computer science ideas illustrated in the TV show Westworld – which they may re-release as a podcast to broaden their audience -- and Isbell’s pre-recorded keynote for the major AI conference, NeurIPS, in which Littman acted as Ebenezer Scrooge objecting to concerns of bias in machine learning, and Isbell as the "Ghost of Learning Past/Present/Future." The video was well received in the conference and was viewed by about ten thousand people in its first week online.

Following this success, they received support from Georgia Tech to continue the six-episode series, including hiring an artist to provide several minutes of animation per episode. A communications expert at Georgia Tech helped Littman revise the scripts to be more accessible to non-experts, and Littman did additional research (mainly watching episodes of Bill Nye) to figure out more precisely who they should aim to reach. He decided the content he wanted to share was not oriented toward kids, or a more general public --- typically too broad a category to focus on -- but rather, toward students who are new to the computer science field or adults who have studied it but moved on to other pursuits, with the goal of creating or reviving interest in the inspiring and exciting facets of this area of science. One episode will highlight a mystery in how machine learning works, and another will discuss the surprising power of quantum computing.

Littman is also working on another video project with former journalist and communications consultant Katherine Gorman focused on helping high school students interpret news about AI, since AI is being introduced into some high school curricula. They plan to interview scientists about their experiences sharing AI research with the media. Littman noted that he is more interested in the communications-related questions, while Gorman wants to hear about the AI itself. Littman is on an email listserv of AI researchers and K-12 teachers, which has allowed him to listen for what the teachers’ needs are, and they intend to put out a short survey to the listserv soon to help further refine the plan before starting interviews.

During the fellowship, Littman has found the AAAS emphasis on an engagement framing extremely useful, because he realized he “had been thinking more in the communications frame, and I’m now thinking of it [engagement] as a conversation.” To help him implement this idea, every time in the past year he has been asked to give a talk where there might be the opportunity for dialogue, he has said yes. “This is the way I’m trying to pump up that kind of engagement for myself,” he says. To compensate, he has turned down more invitations to give research talks – and notes that, eventually, he will recalibrate this balance somewhat to stay more engaged in researcher conversations.

For now, “as a Public Engagement Fellow, I’m really trying to spend my energy on these opportunities to reach out to a broader audience… For me, as someone who has a difficult time saying no, and gets drawn into what other people want me to do, it’s tremendously valuable to have the fellowship as a kind of lighthouse. Because these broader conversations are what I’m trying to accomplish right now, I need to not do these other things, because they are pushing me off-track.”

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.