Penn State partners on $20M AI Institute for Societal Decision Making

May 15, 2023

Editor’s note: A version of this news release was originally published by Carnegie Mellon University. Christopher Dancy, the Harold and Inge Marcus Industrial and Manufacturing Career Development Associate Professor and associate professor of computer science and engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, will lead one of the research thrusts of the new NSF-funded AI Institute for Societal Decision Making.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Funded with a five-year, $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the new AI Institute for Societal Decision Making (AI-SDM) aims to improve the response to societal challenges such as disaster management and public health by creating human-centric AI tools to assist with critical decisions, according to NSF. Led by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) with collaboration from several other institutions including Penn State, the institute also will develop interdisciplinary training to bolster effective and rapid response in uncertain and dynamic situations.

AI-SDM is one of seven AI institutes awarded recently by NSF.

Christopher Dancy, the Harold and Inge Marcus Industrial and Manufacturing Career Development Associate Professor and associate professor of computer science and engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, will lead one of the research thrusts of the institute. Partnering with Cleotilde Gonzalez, a research professor in CMU's Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Dancy will develop computational models to accurately represent how and why humans make the decisions they do in times of crisis as well as the sociocultural contexts that affect decision making, which can lead to the development of better AI tools.

"Our work at the AI-SDM will contribute to the foundational research required to accurately predict human choices under conditions of uncertainty, time constraints and temporal dynamics,” said Gonzalez, who will serve as the institute's research co-director. “We will construct the future of experimental and computational cognitive decision science, promoting equity and fairness through human-AI complementarity."

As a result of his work with the institute, Dancy will work with Penn State’s Multicultural Engineering Program Office to augment the Engineering Summer Bridge program with computational cognitive science and AI related programming.

“This will give us an opportunity to share with students just entering engineering some of our research and to give those students an opportunity to critically think through these topics early in their academic career,” Dancy said.

Aarti Singh, a professor in the Machine Learning Department of CMU's School of Computer Science, said the best applications of artificial intelligence in societal domains will come when we use AI in making decisions.

"Social scientists are studying human behavior,” said Singh, who will serve as the institute's director. “Machine learning researchers are developing new AI technologies to aid in decision making. For maximal impact of these technologies, we need to have social scientists and AI researchers collaborate to come up with solutions that will leverage AI capability while ensuring social acceptance."

AI-SDM will bring together experts from both the School of Computer Science and Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at CMU, as well as Harvard University, Boston Children's Hospital, Howard University, Penn State, Texas A&M University, the University of Washington, the MITRE Corporation, Navajo Technical University and Winchester Thurston School. The diverse group of researchers and practitioners will work with public health departments, emergency management agencies, nonprofits, companies, hospitals and health clinics to enhance decision making.

"With artificial intelligence advancing at a dizzying pace, our future depends on researchers, social scientists, decision makers and the public working together to understand these tools and put them to ethical use," said Congresswoman Summer Lee (PA-12), whose district includes CMU.

By bringing together AI and social science researchers, AI-SDM will enable data-driven, robust, resource-efficient decisions and improve outcomes by accounting for human factors that are key to acceptance of these decisions in the field, such as biases, perception of risk, trust and equity. AI-SDM aims to leverage AI to better understand human decision making; to improve the ability of AI to make decisions; and to apply those advances to create better, more trusted choices, according to the institute’s research abstract.

Other research thrusts will involve a humanities-led perspective that evaluates past actions and decisions not taken; working alongside experts in public health and disaster management experts to develop tools that will help make timely interventions in public health and disaster management; and research into how to improve the acceptance of AI-assisted decision making by people tasked with making choices and the public.

This work will be paired with education and workforce development.

"A big part of this is engagement with the community," Singh said. "The public's understanding and trust of our work is essential to making it viable. Without them, we cannot push forward."


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