Liberal Arts News
Generative artificial intelligence models such as ChatGPT and Google’s Bard raise ethical questions about property, privacy and education. Auburn University Assistant Professor of Philosophy Rachel Rudolph and Associate Professor of Philosophy Elay Shech, along with data scientist Michael Tamir, are completing a research article about bias in AI. In addition to the ethical concerns of biased AI programs, Rudolph and Shech discuss ethical questions society will need to confront about evolving artificial intelligence.
Your current research focuses on bias in AI models. How does bias enter a computer program?
Rudolph: One big worry with some of these AI tools is they’re trained on all this text from the internet that often has a lot of biased opinions and stereotypes, that are prevalent in our society, which get baked into that training data. Unless interventions are put into place, these tools are just going to spit out and perpetuate more of this unethical biased language usage. So, we’ve been thinking about how these AI tools are being trained and influenced to try to improve in that regard and maybe even try to help influence users to think about things in a less stereotypical way.
Shech: The idea is that we can get our machine learning model to pick up on patterns and correlations if we feed it with enough data. Large language models like Chat GPT have hundreds of billions to over a trillion trainable parameters and so are trained on large volumes of available existing text found, for example, on the web. This means though that whatever biases are out there in the way we use language on the internet gets sucked into these machines. In our paper, we explain how this process happens and continue to ask questions like: What do we mean by “bias” when we’re identifying it?
What did you find about de-biasing AI technology?
Shech: Something I found really interesting is that it was difficult to identify a clear articulation of what bias is supposed to be in the first place. We all kind of know what it is, until we start arguing about it, but it turns out to be tricky to define it in a way that captures a lot of exemplars while still doing the work that we want it to do. One of the things that our paper tries to push is that when we make identifications of bias, we could be talking about different things. There’s obviously the need for technical expertise in de-biasing, but you also need theorists who think about ethics and philosophy. De-biasing takes work that is normative and evaluative to really decide what it should look like.
Rudolph: Another important issue is the human labor that goes into de-biasing work. The way that has mostly worked is there are actual people who look at what samples of text we want these models to take as good, and which ones we want them to take as bad. The bad ones are often really bad, and people are poorly paid to read tons of violent, abusive material. The ethical dimension of how these things are trained is also important to be aware of and discuss. We obviously don’t want ChatGPT to spew violent and racist material, but how do we actually go about filtering that out? We want to do that in a responsible and ethical way, too.
What other ethical concerns surround generative AI?
Rudolph: One implication of AI is for intellectual property. There are a lot of interesting lawsuits that are in the pipeline about generative AI. Image generators, for example, would not be able to do the amazing things that they can do if they hadn’t been trained on all this material that was created by actual people who were not asked for their consent or compensated. So, I think there are really important ethical issues about the creation of these models in the first place.
Shech: One of the big issues that also arises in some of the other work that I do is AI being opaque. Sometimes these models have billions of parameters, and it’s hard to understand how they work, to the extent that there’s a lot of both theoretical and empirical work done to try to understand what makes a particular model work so well. When you have some sort of model, making decisions, say, that have to do with cancer diagnosis or criminal justice, there’s something worrisome about putting your trust in something you don’t fully understand.
How is AI affecting education?
Rudolph: The thing that’s gotten the most attention is probably the way that AI is affecting and will continue to affect teaching and learning. We should view the next couple of semesters with an exploratory, experimental mindset. It’s going to take time to figure out the right balance of which kinds of assignments these tools can be helpful for. I taught logic last semester, and ChatGPT was not very good at the questions that I was asking, so I would sometimes use it as an example to the students of where this goes wrong.
Shech: There’s an interesting balance to be found between stopping students from cheating as technology evolves, but also making decisions about when it's okay to use this as a tool. In the humanities, we put a lot of emphasis on writing and cultivating that as a skill that is not only useful in life but is going to be meaningful to your interaction with the world. Is that the kind of thing in the future we’re going to care less about, because anybody can have some future ChatGPT write beautifully for them? I don’t know. I think it's something we need to think critically about. What are skills that we still care about, and we want to have as a society, and which ones are we okay with letting the machines do?
About the experts:
Rachel Rudolph is an assistant professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts. Her work focuses on the philosophy of language, including how people communicate and how language affects how people conceptualize the world around them.
Elay Shech is an associate professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts. His research focuses on the philosophy of science, physics, biology and machine learning.
Charlotte Tuggle, Director
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from left: Rachel Rudolph and Elay Shech
For the second straight year, Auburn University is ranked in the top 11% of U.S. research institutions, coming in at No. 100 among 915 universities, according to the National Science Foundation’s most recent Higher Education Research and Development, or HERD, Survey.
Among public universities, Auburn is ranked No. 68 out of 412 institutions. The university also increased its research and development spending overall by $11.1 million in 2021.
“Auburn’s second year of ranking among the nation’s top 100 research institutions continues to be a significant accomplishment,” said James Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for research and economic development. “Our researchers continue to be committed to engaging in impactful research—much of which is critical to supporting major Alabama industries—and that commitment is reflected in Auburn’s being highly ranked once again.”
The annual survey, compiled from fiscal year 2021 research expenditures, saw Auburn hold its position in the rankings’ top 100 even as 10 other SEC schools saw their positions fall. During the five-year period from 2017-21, Auburn’s annual research expenditures increased from $190.3 million to $266.4 million, resulting in a rankings jump of 14 places.
For universities without a medical school, Auburn again ranked No. 61 nationally and No. 1 in the state. Auburn also was highly ranked nationally in a number of specific fields of research, including No. 51 in engineering (up three spots), No. 53 in mathematics and statistics (up one spot) and No. 94 in physical sciences, all state bests. Auburn also ranked No. 41 for non-science and engineering research expenditures (up two spots). These fields include business administration, management, communications, education, humanities, social work and human sciences.
A hallmark of Auburn’s research is the diversity of its funded projects. Highlights include:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded Auburn’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment $2.1 million for studies into mitigating needle blight, a growing threat to pine trees. According to EDPA, the forest products industry is the state’s largest manufacturing industry. A second USDA award of more than $1.5 million is funding another study in the college aimed at reducing the effects of climate change through forest carbon sequestration.
The Auburn College of Agriculture’s Department of Poultry Science was awarded more than $1.2 million for research into sustainable poultry processing, as well as received additional funding of approximately $1.3 million for a study of the effects of environmental conditions in production efficiency and product quality in commercial poultry operations. Like forestry, poultry production is another major industry in Alabama. Alabama ranks fourth in the nation in broiler (chicken) production.
In addition to the high ranking in the NSF HERD Survey, Auburn is recognized by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as a top-level, or R1, university with “very high research activity.”
National Park Service grants boost research projects designed to help document, preserve African American civil rights history
Researchers in Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction, or CADC, and College of Liberal Arts recently received grants from the National Park Service, or NPS, to further their efforts to document and preserve African American and civil rights history.
A team of faculty from CADC, including Gorham Bird, Junshan Liu, Hunter McGonagill and Richard Burt, is overseeing a restoration and preservation project throughout the state of Alabama focusing on Rosenwald Schools—nearly 400 schools built in Alabama between 1912-32 to serve as educational facilities for African American children. The team’s research efforts received $499,799 in NPS funds for the stabilization and exterior rehabilitation of the Tankersley Rosenwald School in Hope Hull, Alabama.
“Our team is thrilled and honored to have the support of the National Park Service through the African American Civil Rights Grant Program,” Bird said. “This award highlights the need to preserve sites that contribute to the full American story, particularly Rosenwald Schools of the rural segregated South. This grant enables our team to provide preservation expertise to a rural nonprofit organization for the stabilization and rehabilitation of the shattered Tankersley Rosenwald School in Hope Hull, Alabama.”
The Tankersley school has been vacant for decades, but more recently has been at risk of collapse due to water intrusion that has led to structural failure. The scope of the project includes working with a preservation contractor to stabilize the building, complete a Historic Structures Report, or HSR, and develop a preservation scope of work for rehabilitation of the exterior of the historic building. The CADC team will be supported in that work by professors Keith Hébert and Elijah Gaddis from the College of Liberal Arts and Danielle Willkens from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The African American Civil Rights grants, which total more than $16.2 million, will benefit 44 projects in 15 states and support preservation of sites and history related to the African American struggle for equality. This project is supported through an African American Civil Rights grant, provided by the Historic Preservation Fund, as administered by the NPS, Department of Interior.
In addition, an Auburn-led project titled “Memory and the March: Oral Histories with Selma’s Foot Soldiers” spearheaded by Hébert and Gaddis from the Department of History received $46,588 in funding from the NPS.
“The National Park Service has recommitted its resources to identify, preserve and interpret resources connected to the nation’s African American history in a profound way that greatly expands the ability of Black rural community partners to collaborate with institutions such as Auburn University to transform how our nation remembers its tumultuous past while reflecting on how best to move forward in a time of great change,” Hébert said. “By elevating the stories of Rosenwald School buildings and Bloody Sunday’s foot soldiers, these projects will enhance our nation’s understanding of how Black Alabamians have historically challenged the racially segregated social order to build vibrant communities and stake their claim to fulfilling a vision of a more perfect and equitable union.”
Congress appropriated funding for the African American Civil Rights Grant Program in fiscal year 2021 through the Historic Preservation Fund, or HPF. The HPF uses revenue from federal oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf, assisting with a broad range of preservation projects without expending tax dollars, with the intent to mitigate the loss of a nonrenewable resource to benefit the preservation of other irreplaceable resources.
Established in 1977, the HPF is authorized at $150 million per year through 2023 and has provided more than $2.7 billion in historic preservation grants to states, Tribes, local governments and nonprofit organizations. Administered by the NPS, HPF funds may be appropriated by Congress to support a variety of historic preservation projects to help preserve the nation’s cultural resources.
Learn more about NPS historic preservation programs and grants.
BY NEAL REID
A multidisciplinary Auburn University research team will utilize money from a National Park Service grant to work with a preservation contractor to stabilize the Tankersley Rosenwald School in Hope Hull, Alabama, complete a Historic Structures Report and develop a preservation scope of work for rehabilitation of the exterior of the historic building.
Categories: Liberal Arts
Auburn professors’ Selma ‘Bloody Sunday’ project gaining momentum through social media, public support
The interdisciplinary tandem is enlisting a group of Auburn Honors College students to help expand the project’s reach to the social media realm, and they have established a Facebook page where visitors can connect and help identify marchers who participated in one of the seminal moments in civil rights history—Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, in Selma.
On that day, John Lewis, Hosea Williams and a group of approximately 600 marchers were confronted by Alabama State Troopers armed with tear gas and metal batons as they began a march for equality toward Montgomery. The nation watched in horror that night on ABC as marchers were pummeled by law enforcement in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” an event that would serve as a catalyst for Americans across the country to rally behind the civil rights movement like never before.
The researchers are hoping the public can help distinguish the identities of the brave men and women who took part in the march that day.
“Social media platforms such as Facebook offer public historians invaluable tools to connect with multi-generational audiences across a broad geography,” Hébert said. “We have received critical information from former Bloody Sunday foot soldiers and their loved ones near and far as we build a comprehensive database of those marchers’ names and stories. Our Honors College students are gaining experience communicating with diverse audiences as we all come together to collect and celebrate the heroic sacrifices those foot soldiers made in Selma on March 7, 1965. Those learning opportunities will bode well for their future career endeavors as they help America build a diverse, inclusive and equitable society.”
In addition, Burt and Hébert have received considerable support from the Selma community, in particular the Selma City Council and Selma High School. City council members were briefed about the Auburn-led project at a recent meeting and have pledged their support and resources to aiding the endeavor’s success.
“Actually putting names to these faces is a game-changer,” Selma City Council Chairman Billy Young said. “We’re extremely enthusiastic about recording history this way, because for so long, these men and women who did so much never had their names provided. It means a great deal for Auburn and all the students and everyone to come together for this project.
“This project brings us back into the forefront in the fight for social justice that’s been taking place in Selma, and identifying these people this way is a great homage to Selma. We are gung-ho and really proud of the work that’s being done, and seeing everything unfold this way makes the city council feel even better about our support and makes us want to support it even more.”
The project also will be promoted with posters at the Selma Dallas County Public Library, and photos from that fateful day will be on display at a November photography festival in Selma thanks to the efforts of Bloody Sunday march participant JoAnn Bland, who identified herself in one of the historical images.
“I think it’s amazing, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Bland said of the project. “That was the first time I’d seen a picture of me, and I don’t think the ordinary foot soldiers get the recognition for what we did. Our kids know about Dr. King and John Lewis, but they don’t realize ordinary people like me were out there fighting and didn’t give up.
“It makes the pictures come alive when you know [people’s] names, and they’re pictures that need to have captions and need to have names listed with them. So many people have been left out, and a lot of people around here have the blood of those history-makers running through their veins and they should know about them.”
Albert Turner Jr.—chairman of the Perry County Commission whose father, Albert Turner Sr., helped organize the march in 1965—applauded the team’s efforts.
“I think this will be the most accurate depiction of Bloody Sunday that has ever been documented,” said Turner. “It will speak to the core of the people who were there on Bloody Sunday, the march that changed America. The civil rights movement was built by everyday people who felt the sting of segregation and being treated as second-class citizens, and those were the people who rallied together on Bloody Sunday, which was the most revolutionary act of defiance since the Civil War.
“I think this project is going to help give Perry County the national recognition it deserves for its role in the foundation of Bloody Sunday, and more than 50 percent of the marchers were from Perry County. This project that Auburn University is doing will help bear witness to Perry County and its dominant role in Bloody Sunday.”
Selma High School teacher Veronica Pitts has even enlisted her AP History class in helping advance the project, particularly working on the social media component and enlisting family members to help identify Bloody Sunday marchers. Pitts was first introduced to the cause of identifying marchers while working for the National Park Service prior to becoming a teacher, so this project is a chance to rekindle a passion project from her past.
“I’m excited to be able to share this project with my class,” said Pitts, a Selma High School alumnae who has nearly 30 students in her class. “The biggest thing has been trying to convince them to get some of their grandparents to assist us in this process in identifying some of those foot soldiers. When this opportunity presented itself, it made my heart sing because I had an opportunity to get back to some work I’d done nine or 11 years ago.
“We’re excited to get the ball rolling and see how much we can get done this semester and the rest of this year.”
Burt—who also has set up a workroom for students to utilize for the project in Dudley Commons on campus—and Hébert have been energized and are immensely appreciative of the wave of support the research venture has garnered this year.
“The project is really starting to come together now,” said Burt, the McWhorter Endowed Chair and head of the McWhorter School of Building Science in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction, who has worked for years to survey and map the area where the historic confrontation occurred. “We have set up a workroom in the exhibition space of the College of Architecture, Design and Construction in Dudley Hall. The space is open during regular working hours, and folks are free to come visit to see how the project is progressing.”
The project recently received another boost when it was chosen to receive a nearly $190,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH, to support a pair of week-long workshops to include 72 K-12 educators in field studies that focus on the significance of Selma in the early days of the civil rights movement. Those workshops will be led by Hébert and his fellow Department of History colleague Elijah Gaddis, and their team members also include Junshan Liu, CADC, Leslie Cordie, College of Education, Meghan Buchanan, College of Liberal Arts, and Danielle Willkens of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the team also is working with faculty from Alabama State University.
The overarching hope for the project is to identify as many Bloody Sunday participants as possible and, therefore, perhaps better understand the crucially important civil rights event while also elevating Selma’s status as a historical site.
“Our project highlights the need for additional historical research and documentation for one of the most famous moments in American history,” Hébert said. “By taking a fresh look at Bloody Sunday, our research has revealed rich details about how the march unfolded that prior historians have overlooked. We intend to help those in Selma who want to do more to preserve and interpret the historic landscapes connected to this seminal event.
“Today, the historic conflict site is in dire need of historic preservation and interpretation. Hopefully, we can build a coalition to save this historic site before it is too late.”
BY NEAL REID
The Selma, Alabama, community has come together with Auburn University researchers to help identify marchers from the 1965 Bloody Sunday incident. From left to right, Rachel Metcalf from the City of Selma, marcher JoAnn Bland, Selma Times reporter James Jones and Selma Public Library Director Becky Nichols recently met up to look at historic photos. Bland identified herself in one of the photos for the first time thanks to the project.
An Auburn University multidisciplinary project focused on the infamous “Bloody Sunday” civil rights event that occurred in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, is the recipient of an award as part of $28.4 million in humanities grants recently announced by the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH.
Co-directed by professors Elijah Gaddis and Keith Hébert of the Department of History, their project, titled “Bloody Sunday, Selma and the Long Civil Rights Movement,” is the recipient of a $189,837 award in the “Landmarks of American History and Culture” category. One of five awards in that category, Auburn’s grant will support a pair of week-long workshops to include 72 K-12 educators in field studies that focus on the significance of Selma in the early days of the civil rights movement.
“We plan to deeply immerse workshop participants in the landscape and built environment that existed in 1965 and in learning about the participants and events that led up to and included the march from Selma to Montgomery and the clash between marchers and law enforcement that came to be known as Bloody Sunday,” Gaddis said.
The team’s efforts build on earlier research by Hébert and Richard Burt, the McWhorter Endowed Chair and head of the McWhorter School of Building Science in CADC. Other team members include Junshan Liu, CADC, Leslie Cordie, College of Education, and Danielle Willkens of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the team also is working with faculty from Alabama State University and a high school teacher from Selma.
“We will be using much of the work that Drs. Hebert and Burt did on documenting the historic sites from that period in Selma’s history,” Gaddis said.
That earlier research used historical photos and video footage, photogrammetry software, laser scanners, drones and design concepts and technology to survey and map the area where the confrontation occurred. Through those efforts, the researchers were able to identify and chart the location of everything from local businesses, vehicles parked on the road and Alabama State Troopers, to the civil rights marchers, spectators and media, including the ABC News van that captured the events as they unfolded.
“This largely recreates the scene from 1965 in the form of schematics and computerized plans in a pursuit to preserve the setting of Bloody Sunday,” Gaddis said.
Most associate that Selma event with the well-known Edmund Pettus Bridge, according to Gaddis.
“But the confrontation did not occur on the bridge,” he said. “Our workshop will incorporate Hebert and Burt’s architectural landscape study with other in-depth studies and information about actual participants. Moreover, the workshops will not focus only on Selma, but also on other Alabama locations that were part of this significant event in the American civil rights movement.”
“The grants demonstrate the resilience and breadth of our nation’s humanities institutions and practitioners,” said NEH’s Acting Chairman Adam Wolfson. “From education programs that will enrich teaching in college and high school classrooms to multi-institutional research initiatives, these excellent projects will advance the teaching, preservation and understanding of history and culture.”
Gaddis said Auburn will begin hosting its workshops in summer of 2022 with events planned in Selma, Montgomery and Auburn.
“We will end the last day of the workshops on the steps of the Alabama Capitol Building, where the marchers ended their journey from Selma to Montgomery,” Gaddis said.
BY MITCH EMMONS
Pictured: "Bloody Sunday" mural in Selma, Alabama. Richard Burt and Keith Hebert have conducted extensive research about the incident known as "Bloody Sunday" that occurred in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. Auburn assistant professor of history Elijah Gaddis and Hebert will use that research to conduct a pair of week-long field study workshops for 72 K-12 educators.
Categories: Liberal Arts