USC Provost: “We are more demanding of AI than we are of ourselves”

by Magali Gruet

USC Provost Charles Zukoski at ISI. Photo credit/Magali Gruet

Research strategy questions, poster presentations, and making the office exciting again. On Thursday July 28, 2022, the University of Southern California’s Provost Charles F. Zukoski got an overview of the exciting plans and remarkable computing research taking place at USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI). About ten miles away from his office at the University Park campus, he started with a tour of the institution that has been in the heart of Silicon Beach since 1972. 

Following Craig Knoblock, the Keston Executive Director of the Information Sciences Institute and Yolanda Gil, Director of New Initiatives in AI and Data Science from floor to floor, Zukoski jumped straight into the most pressing  topics in computer science: quantum and semiconductors, where the U.S. government plans to allocate billions of dollars in the upcoming years. He made sure that ISI was fully involved in those strategic technologies. “We just received a new quantum computer with 5000 qubits,” reassured Knoblock, before elaborating on ISI’s plan to revamp its semiconductor activity. 

Zukoski also appreciated the Startup Garage, a USC Viterbi School of Engineering incubator hosted by ISI to help entrepreneurs get off the ground. “I would love to see more ISI-ers start their own endeavor,” commented Knoblock. 

The USC Provost was particularly interested in the well-being of the employees, and how to make the office fun and collaborative. “It’s all about how we build the community; when people could work from home but decide to come to the office, it’s because they get something extra.” 

“My son worked for Google in New York and they had free food, ping pong tables. This makes the younger generation more involved” added Zukoski. The timing could not be more ideal, as ISI just started to give free weekly lunches to its employees; “and we have a pool table and a ping pong table on the 8th floor” added Gil. 

Another exciting project for ISI: being able to teach on-site by creating a few classrooms on its Marina Del Rey campus. “It could be an integrated internship for the surrounding tech companies of Silicon Beach, a new type of degree here at ISI. We call this experimental teaching,” elaborated Gil. 

Next, four Ph.D students from ISI presented posters about their research. Katy Felkner opened this session with a particularly trending topic: how AI models are likely to be harmful or unfair to the LGBTQ+ community. “We found that a popular language model used in many natural language processing applications shows significant heteronormative bias off-the-shelf. But we also realized that it is possible to measure homophobic and transphobic bias in language models, and to partially mitigate this bias by fine tuning on data from the LGBTQ+ community on Twitter.”  

“We showed the model how queer people talk about themselves, like the type of jobs they hold. That way, the model does not discriminate against the queer community when it comes to job listings,” explained Felkner. Zukoski asked many questions and found it “fascinating.”  

Ph.D student Basileal Imana, the next presenter, was also on the topic of bias, studying how Facebook discriminates against different groups of people looking for a job. He and his team placed hiring ads asking the platform to show it equally to men and women, but found that the company prevented women from seeing some of them. LinkedIn, on the other hand, was “a lot less biased, with no evidence of gender discrimination.” It made the Provost think. ”Those platforms are reflecting how we think because they are based on human made databases, and we are more demanding of AI than we are of ourselves,” said the Provost. 

Nicolaas Weideman, also an ISI Ph.D student, works on network vulnerabilities and triggered many questions from Zukoski like “How do you prove the existence of a vulnerability”. He also joked: “I fly planes, I probably need this.” The Provost was particularly impressed when Weiderman told him that his team found a vulnerability on Reddit and the platform used his solution to fix it. “This is very cool,” noted the Provost. 

Last was Ph.D student Binh Vu who developed a method to read tables even when the machine does not know what it is about. His goal is to automatically transform the data into a common format that is easily usable, even when the original data comes in different formats or the columns have different attributes. ”You mean that the AI could recognize that a table is about chemistry?” asked the Provost who holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. “Yes, it could,” answered Vu. 

Later in the day, the Provost met with ISI’s directors to talk strategy and to get a better understanding of what makes ISI such a unique place in USC’s ecosystem. The plan presented by Knoblock was very ambitious, with the goal of doubling the Institute’s research funding, doubling the number of faculty members and students, and hiring the supporting staff necessary to achieve this growth. ISI also has ambitions to play a key role in the future USC Silicon Beach campus, with unique programs tailored to the area. “We could imagine tech companies sending us their employees for a semester in tech, the same way people do a semester abroad,” proposed Gil. 

Published on August 19th, 2022

Last updated on August 19th, 2022