Illustration of a crowd of people overlaid with binary code.

Bridging Ethics and Technology in a Fast-Changing World

UMass Amherst's Public Interest Technology Initiative believes society deserves technology that serves the common good—and works to make sure we get it.

In the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), a new campus-wide initiative—Public Interest Technology at UMass Amherst (PIT@UMass)—aims to “reboot” higher education so students and faculty are better equipped to address the challenges of today’s technology-driven society in a socially responsible way.

In early 2023, Microsoft launched, to much fanfare, an AI-powered chat system to support its Bing search platform. But when users and journalists began to interact with the chatbot, it was perceived as "crazy and unhinged" when it gave inaccurate information and demonstrated unpredictable or troubling behavior. In certain cases, the chatbot was unable to answer seemingly simple questions, became aggressive and threatening, or verged on malfunction when presented with the idea of its own sentience.

Illustration depicting the interface of facial recognition software.
Facial recognition software is a technology that has exhibited bias in some applications. Public interest technology examines the implications of and trains students to find ethical and responsible solutions to problems like these.

Automated systems are never predictable—and can have adverse consequences—in situations that haven’t been seen before. As with any new technology, the implementation of artificial intelligence will have bugs, kinks that need to be worked out and refined as users interact with it. Humans are needed to guide its use and interpretation.

While this new technology is exciting and innovative, the chatbot’s behavior sheds light on what scholars in the growing field of public interest technology have been noticing for years: without responsible human oversight, technology will not always serve the greater good.

Przemyslaw Grabowicz, assistant professor in CICS who teaches a course on “Responsible Artificial Intelligence,” says, “technology can improve our quality of life, which is why we are excited about it, but it can also bear unintended negative consequences to the public, especially if business is the only driver for technology development—which is why we need to think critically about its design.”

Our university is often the last stop before students begin their professional careers, and thus it is crucial that we prepare this current and future generations of professionals, public servants, and citizens to thrive in a tech-driven world.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy

Designing & Utilizing Technology Responsibly and Ethically

It’s not just chatbots—technology touches on veritably every aspect of today’s society. Scholars, engineers, and citizens need to understand how technology works, how to control its outcomes, and how to utilize it in making positive contributions to local and global communities. Therefore, public interest technology serves as a critical foundation for a 21st-century education, for people who create technologies, and for those who use them—which in today’s world is practically everyone.

“Our university is often the last stop before students begin their professional careers, and thus it is crucial that we prepare this current and future generations of professionals, public servants, and citizens to thrive in a tech-driven world,”  says Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, adding that, “Our goal for the UMass Amherst Public Interest Technology program is to increase our education, research, practice, and outreach offerings with respect to social responsibility and technology awareness across the UMass Amherst campus."

A Campus-Wide Approach

Working with Laura Haas, dean of CICS; John Hird, former dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS); and deans from other colleges across campus, Chancellor Subbaswamy recruited and hired award-winning data scientist Francine Berman. Together with Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication, and information in CICS, Berman founded PIT@UMass, an initiative that spans all major schools and colleges at UMass Amherst and seeks to develop a variety of educational, research, and outreach offerings that empower students and the community with the critical thinking, expertise, and information needed to promote personal, professional, and social responsibility in a technology-driven world.

“Wherever you look on campus, there is work taking place that investigates or asks questions about social responsibility in the tech space,” says Berman, now director of the program. “PIT@UMass capitalizes on that, creates new opportunities, and enhances the skills, experience, and knowledge of students and faculty.” Zuckerman, PIT's research director, thinks the interdisciplinary nature of public interest technology is what makes it fascinating. “One of the reasons I was so excited to do this work at UMass is that we have such an academically diverse school,” he says. “I've never taught somewhere previously where I had access to a nursing school, for instance, and I could talk to people about issues around technology’s intersection with the practice of nursing.”

In 2022, PIT@UMass launched its faculty fellowship program. The first cohort of fellows—11 faculty from CICS, the Isenberg School of Management, and the Colleges of Humanities and Fine Arts, SBS, and Engineering—worked to develop nine new courses for undergraduates that addressed technology for the common good in their fields.

Francine Berman, Aastha Agerwal, Michele Ciccone
From left to right: Professor Francine Berman; Aastha Agrawal, one of the first undergrads to take Introduction to Public Interest Technology; and PhD candidate Michelle Ciccone

Accessible to All for a Better Tomorrow 

For the first time in Spring 2023, Berman taught (with a diverse set of guest faculty from across campus) “Introduction to Public Interest Technology,” a "supercourse" of broad interdisciplinary perspective open to undergraduates from all majors that requires no prior knowledge of computer science.

“In this course, we describe the socio-technical world and pragmatic strategies for promoting personal and social responsibility,” explains Berman. “We explore the questions: ‘What is the public interest in a socio-technical world?’ ‘What strategies can we use to promote social responsibility in the public sector, private sector, and general public?’ 'What can each of us do to make the world a better place?’” 

One of the first cohort of students to take the course is Aastha Agrawal, a sophomore double-majoring in computer science and psychology. She first heard Berman speak in 2022 at a talk she gave at the UMass Amherst Mt. Ida campus. Agrawal says she and her friends had already been discussing "how it's important for technology to be used responsibly" and the potential for things like facial recognition software to create big problems in their lives. "It's scary," she says. "Everything is getting online, even the banking system," noting the volume of online transactions, websites, applications, and passwords young people need to manage today. Agrawal approached Berman after her speech and learned about PIT@UMass. She's been involved ever since and jumped at the chance to take "Introduction to Public Interest Technology" when it was announced.

The course is solution-minded, points out teaching assistant Michelle Ciccone, a PhD candidate in communications who has extensive experience implementing educational technologies in middle and high schools. And so are today's college students. "Our job is not to shake this generation awake," she says. "They already get it." According to Ciccone, students at all levels with any interests are ready to examine technology, how they use it in their daily lives, and the downsides of being immersed in it so deeply. PIT@UMass provides a space for students to ask those important questions and figure out what comes next. "We reveal the problems in the technological structures in our life," explains Ciccone, "but then we say, 'We can do something about it,' which is the benefit that public interest technology inherently provides."

This story was published in March 2023.