What would it take to make computing anti-racist? – UB Now: News and views for UB faculty and staff

What would it take to make computing anti-racist?  - UB Now: News and views for UB faculty and staff

Campus news

Group photo of participating students and one of the judges, Phylicia Brown, in Impossible Project: Making Computing Anti-Racist. Front row, left to right: Joy Lee, Edwin Irizarry, Morgan Li, Salvatore Brancato. Second row, left to right: Ben Stegmeier, Liem Nguyen, Brenden Reilly, Phylicia Brown, Dmytro Crawford, Maisoon Anwar. Photo: Madison Daily.


“To be clear, Project Impossible is not a reasonable, modest, or practical endeavor,” said UB faculty member Dalia Antonia Caraballo Muller at the launch of the recent Impossible Project: Making Computing competition. Anti-Racist Student Solution. “But these are not modest times, neither practical nor reasonable. We need something different.

Muller, founder of the Impossible Project and associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at UB, then asked the audience to “suspend the disbelief for a while and engage in a dream act collective” as four groups of students took the stage last month. to Davis Hall to share their ideas for building a world in which computing could be anti-racist.

Their ideas, which were considered the best of more than 120 offered in the freshman computer science and engineering course CSE 199: Internet, Computing, and Society, ranged from voter engagement strategies to list diversification. K-12 reader to an algorithm that could detect racist policies.

Dmytro Crawford and Morgan Li won first place and a $750 prize. Other students who presented were Maisonon Anwar and Salvatore Brancato; Edwin Irizarry, Liem Nguyen and Brenden Reilly; and Joy Lee and Ben Stegmeier. Phylicia Brown, executive director of Black Love Resists in the Rust; Maria Rodriguez, assistant professor in the UB School of Social Work; and D. Sivakumar (PhD, CS, ’96), co-founder of Tonita Inc., served as judges.

“Participating in this competition made me grasp the idea of ​​embedding ethics in computing,” said Morgan Li, a first-year computer science major. “I will always be vigilant about the impact of my future work on others and will raise my concerns if I ever see potentially discriminatory software.”

The competition, and the program development work that led to it, was funded by a Mozilla Responsible Computer Science Challenge award, which aims to embed ethics and responsibility into U.S. higher education computer science curricula. .

“It won’t always be easy – you might be upset, you might be told to just focus on coding, like I was,” said Kathy Pham, Senior Advisor for Responsible Computing at Mozilla and guest speaker at the event, the audience “But wherever you are, whatever company you work for, whatever its mission, be that person who leads that company towards a better, anti-racist future.”

Bringing “the impossible” to CST

Muller founded Impossible Project in 2017, with a mission to instigate, nurture, and support the co-creation of transformative learning experiences that empower students to imagine just futures for our world and planet, and to achieve these futures.

“The challenge that has driven me as an educator all these years is to be able to teach my students in a way that inspires them not only to care about justice, but to make justice part of their daily lives,” Muller said. .

Over the years, Impossible Projects has taken various forms, from a collaboration with the School of Management that calls on MBA students to imagine solutions to global inequality, to a project with the Graduate School of Education that asks college students to design a utopia, among other things.

In 2019, while serving as Principal of Honors College, Muller met Atri Rudra, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) who was then a Fellow of Honors College. Rudra had a long-standing interest in integrating ethics into CSE pedagogy, at UB and beyond.

As Principal Investigator of the Mozilla Grant, Rudra also contributed to Mozilla’s “Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook,” a guide on how schools can update curricula to place greater emphasis on ethics when teaching. the design of technological products.

“After we met, I joked with Dalia that if she really wanted to do something impossible, she could convince our computer science and engineering students that they are responsible for the societal implications of what they build” , said Rudra.

Bringing this discussion – of the impact of technology on society and the role of computer scientists, who often see their work of writing code as divorced from ethics – in the classroom is a relatively recent and radical idea. And so, Muller and Rudra thought he was the perfect candidate for an impossible project.

Collaborate on a Radical Agenda

In fall 2021, 600 freshmen were introduced to The Impossible Project: Making Computing Anti-Racist through a two-week module taught by Kenneth Joseph, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

The module is the result of over a year of interdisciplinary curriculum development. Muller, Rudra and Joseph, along with educational evaluation consultant Kimberly Boulden and an interdisciplinary team of student research assistants, began working together in 2020 to create the unique racial justice program, the first of its kind in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. .

After months of research and discussion, the group succeeded in illustrating racial bias in technology through a case study of PredPol, a predictive policing company that uses an algorithm to predict crime.

“One of the things we try to get students to think about is, does technology have values? And if so, what are the values ​​and why? said Joseph.

Student research assistants participated in all stages of the process, from research to curriculum development.

“In helping to form this course, I wanted to ensure that CSE students understood past and present injustices to prevent and combat future inequalities, thereby helping to build a more just society,” said Alexis Harrell, research assistant undergraduate and past president of the Society and Computing Club, an interdisciplinary student club dedicated to examining the implications of computing on society at large.

A brighter future for computing

“There’s this romantic narrative that we can solve anything with technology when in reality it’s not true,” Rudra said. “It may seem hopeless, but that first realization – that you can’t solve everything with technology alone – is incredibly helpful and powerful, because then you start to ask yourself, ‘Who else can I talk to? ? and ‘How can we improve it?’

These questions embody the central values ​​of Project Impossible: interdisciplinary collaboration and the search for a better future, while understanding that the work is never done.

Muller, Rudra and Joseph see Impossible Project: Making Computing Anti-Racist as the beginning of their collaboration. Next spring, Rudra and Joseph, who teach an elective called Machine Learning and Society, plan to do a semester-long impossible project. Their students will collaborate with students from Muller, who will simultaneously take an African Diaspora history course called Rage Against the Machine.

“The Impossible Project is misleading because it tricks you into thinking that all you have to do is work harder and you can make the impossible possible. But, in truth, The Impossible Project is the journey, not the end point. The endpoint turns out to be nothing more than another door to open,” Muller said. “That’s what the CSE 199 students presented at the Impossible Project final event. They sparked new imaginations of another possible future. They are dreams, but they are also real.