Notes on the Road – Michigan Road Scholars 2023

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Notes on the Road

Michigan Road Scholars 2023

Written by MIDAS Executive Director Jing Liu. Viewpoints and opinions expressed are her own.

The Michigan Road Scholars tour is a one-week road trip organized by the University of Michigan Vice President for Government Relations Office. 30 scholars, mostly faculty, visit many parts of the state to get to know our communities and people, their passions and challenges, and our natural environment.  Given that I work in a data science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) institute, I wanted to see how data and AI are impacting our state and explore the opportunities they present. I was fortunate enough to be selected among many applicants to participate in the program this year, and was on the road May 1-5.

Working is beautiful

This was a quote from a book that I read as a kid. I don’t even remember the name of the book, but this quote stayed with me for all these years. Being at work, especially doing something you love or are good at, gives so much meaning to our lives: our self worth, fulfillment, and contribution to society.

On the road, I met so many people who demonstrate that working is beautiful:

  • Ryan, the manager in the Detroit Diesel engine plant (upper left), whose pride in his plant and in his work was obvious in everything he said.
  • The incarcerated individuals in the Vocational Village at Handlon Correctional Facility (upper right), who are taking classes in carpentry, welding, auto repair and more, getting high school diplomas and taking college classes.
  • The many passionate women who started their microbusinesses through the help of Build Institute (bottom left).
  • In Detroit, we heard about how Lafayette Green (bottom right), a community garden, employs teenagers to both plant trees for Detroit and to help them build work ethics.

What struck me the most is that every one of them is so passionate and knowledgeable about their work.

Resources, labor and the American privilege

The other side of the story is the lack of resources prevalent across the organizations and individuals whom we met, including schools, public universities, and community colleges from Detroit to all the way up north; rural healthcare systems; Native American tribal nations; and a housing shortage spanning the entire state.

By the end of the first day, I had already learned one of the biggest lessons of this trip: I am always proud that I work really hard, but so many people out there work just as hard with far fewer resources.

Up north, we also heard from a few groups of people about the lack of labor. Hotels are hiring workers on temporary visas from other countries to run their day-to-day operations. We looked around in the houses that Habitat for Humanity is building. By American standards, these are pretty basic starter homes with three bedrooms and all the necessary amenities. But here is when I remembered how my family of four lived in one 160-square foot room for years in China when I was a child, and some of my friends lived in even smaller homes. One of my fellow Road Scholars said that, when he was a child in India, he and his three siblings slept on the floor of his grandma’s room. As our communities face so many challenges because of the lack of resources, how do we keep our effort in the context that the US has 4.25% of the world population but 31% of the wealth?

We – the US – certainly don’t lack resources. How can we ensure that these resources reach the people who really need them? How can data scientists help to both raise awareness of the resource inequalities and their impact on the entire society, and support data-informed policies?

Will AI take over?

While we marvel at so many people’s passion about their work, we are also concerned about how robots, GPTs and other forms of AI are reshaping the nature of work.

  • At the Detroit Diesel engine plant, what struck us was the extent of automation (pic 1). Few workers were around, the vast 3 million square feet of the factory floor were mostly run by automated processes, machines and robots.
  • At the LaFarge cement factory in Alpena (pic 2) – the largest cement plant in the world by some records – with an annual output of 2.4M tons of cement and with the plant running 24/7, there are a total of only 280 employees.
  • At the dinner with the Old Town Playhouse and their senior performance group Aged to Perfection, the seniors talked with me about whether they’d trust AI when it replaces experienced doctors to make diagnosis and treatment plans.
  • At the Enbridge oil pipeline (pic 3), workers talked about using AI to predict water traffic safety breeches.

What will the workplace look like in two, five, or ten years? When the incarcerated individuals in the vocational village receive certificates in carpentry or auto repair, when the next generation of factory floor workers are ready to seek jobs, what jobs will await them? How are we preparing for the age when humans and AI co-exist?

Academia, government, community, industry and the need to collaborate

On the road, we also heard communities and school districts talk about how difficult it is to influence government policy; industry people talk about challenges in their communication with local communities; and sometimes how difficult the different groups in the communities can get on the same page. We also heard many groups of people say to us, “We are so happy you are here!” by which they meant University of Michigan. Every time I heard this, I was actually a bit embarrassed, because many of us actually know so little about these communities.

welcome sign at grand traverse MI

We are embracing a fast-changing world. New technologies such as AI are rapidly changing our definition of work, human relationships, and even what is human. Data and the capability of using data to guide policy are enriching the already rich communities and leaving others behind. Climate change is happening in front of our eyes. How we preserve and seek livelihood, fulfillment and dignity in this new world is something too big for anyone to tackle alone. This is the time when we ALL need to work together.

Celebrating people, community, and our natural habitats

Thunder Bay Diving Center. Credit: NOAA

  • At Archangel Ancient Tree Archive in Copemish, we saw how David Milarch’s family uses modern biotechnology to clone ancient trees that could help reverse climate change (upper left).
  • At the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, we learned about how they respect the animals that they hunt (upper right).
  • At 9 Bean Rows Farmstead, we learned how the farmers supported each other during the pandemic (lower left).
  • At Thunder Bay, we heard about how local students learn technical skills and help preserve the Great Lakes through working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (lower right).
  • (bottom) In Traverse City, we had dinner with community theater members and watched plays performed by Aged to Perfection – seniors from 55 to 93, who performed with energy, humor, wisdom, and charm. One woman in her 80s told me about how hard it was for her in her 20s to pursue a job that was neither a teacher nor a nurse. I asked her, if she could go back in time, what she would say to her 25-year-old self. Her answer: “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.”

They are the reasons why we work hard in the first place.

MIDAS Collaborates with Campus Units to Navigate the Fast-Changing AI Landscape and Ethical Implications

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During the last holiday season, millions of people worldwide experienced what it was like to let ChatGPT write an essay, debug code, or dispense sage advice. They also witnessed firsthand just how smoothly ChatGPT could make up information that it didn’t know.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rapidly claiming its place in everything we do: it drives cars and fighter planes; it detects cancer in radiological images and black holes in telescope images; it helps us choose which songs to listen to; it helps government offices decide who gets welfare; it even designs and runs experiments, even faster than scientists are able to.

As a campus-wide organization to support data science and AI research, one focus area of the Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS) is to enable the use of data science and AI to accelerate scientific discovery. During the Winter 2023 semester, MIDAS faculty affiliates, postdocs, and campus collaborators organized colloquia on “Automated Research Workflows”, “Data Justice, AI and Design” (jointly with Taubman College and the Center for Ethics, Society and Computing), and “AI in Science and Engineering.” The fourth and final one of this semester, “Implementing AI in Health,” will take place on April 17 as a joint event of MIDAS and the Department of Learning Health Sciences. These events brought together experts from around the country and U-M faculty to stimulate research ideas and collaboration.

Yet, this rapid advancement of AI is also challenging some of our fundamental beliefs. What is unique about being human, when machines can write novels, compose music, and beat the chess world champion? To address these complicated questions, MIDAS, LSA and the AI Lab organized a panel discussion in February on how AI tools challenge traditional thinking about classroom learning. On April 19, the second installment, hosted jointly with the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, will focus on generative AI, music composition, the meaning of creativity, and the challenges AI poses to intellectual property.

The fascination about AI also coexists with uneasiness. The increasingly complex AI tools, sometimes in combination with flawed data, can give rise to harm in many ways, including the magnification of disinformation or surveillance capitalism, that will perpetuate or amplify existing biases and injustice. The concerns about the ethical and responsible use of AI are also not limited to human research. Ecologists need to consider whether their datasets are inclusive of endangered species. Jet engine designers need to know that their AI-engineered solutions are safe for humans. How can academic researchers address these concerns as AI developers and users? Another focus area of MIDAS is exactly to promote responsible data science and AI.

The 2023 Future Leaders Summit recently took place, with the theme of “Responsible data science and AI”. This MIDAS annual event brings together outstanding Ph.D students and postdocs from major research universities, midwest universities, and minority-serving universities, with the majority of the attendees being women and under-represented minorities. Trainees listened to vision talks from mentors, gave research presentations, attended career mentoring sessions, and networked with peers. The focus on responsible data science and AI helps to prepare these trainees, who will be the next generation of academic leaders in data science and AI, to maximize the positive impact of data and AI, while preserving the ideals and values of our society.

The Summit included a mini-symposium with the following speakers:

  • H. V. Jagadish, University of Michigan, “Equity in data science.”
  • Ellie Sakhaee, Microsoft, “Building a culture of Responsible AI (and what it means for researchers)”
  • Tanya Berger-Wolf, the Ohio State University, “Human-machine partnership for conservation: AI and humans combatting extinction together”
  • Andrew J. Connolly, University of Washington, “From interstellar rocks to dark energy: building data science across research communities.”

On May 16, 2023, MIDAS will offer From Theory to Practice: Building Ethical and Trustworthy AI, a forum jointly organized with Rocket Companies that will feature speakers from academia, industry and government on the ethical use of AI and its regulation. Readers can still submit abstracts for lightning talks.

“Humans constantly grapple with how new technological advances fit into our moral and ethical framework. But the massive amount of data in the world today and how quickly AI is getting more powerful makes this the critical moment for ethical data science and AI.” Says Dr. H. V. Jagadish, MIDAS Director. “We look forward to working with all researchers to tackle this challenge together.”

MIDAS Welcomes its Inaugural Cohort of Eric and Wendy Schmidt AI in Science Postdoctoral Fellows

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The Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS) has welcomed its inaugural cohort of postdoctoral fellows as part of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt AI in Science Postdoctoral Fellowship program. Made possible by a generous gift of more than $10 million from Schmidt Futures, the program aims to catalyze AI-enabled research breakthroughs in science and engineering and cultivate the next generation of research leaders. Over the course of six years, MIDAS plans to hire a total of 60 fellows for the program.

“The fellowship program is a valuable opportunity for postdoctoral researchers to advance knowledge in the era of big data and AI,” said H.V. Jagadish, Director of MIDAS and the Edgar F. Codd Distinguished University Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The 2022 postdoctoral fellows:

The fellows will not only work on their individual research projects but will also collaborate on initiatives to support the adoption of AI methods in science and engineering research in the U-M research community. This includes the upcoming AI in Science and Engineering Day to showcase AI-enabled science and engineering research and encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Having a centralized “program home” at MIDAS offers the possibility of building a close-knit postdoc community. The fellows will engage in collaborative learning activities such as an AI Boot Camp, a three-day session that includes tutorials on AI skills and mentoring from faculty. The postdocs also formed AI Carpentries, small groups that focus on learning and collaboration around specific themes, such as: Hands-on Machine Learning in Python; Deep Learning; Causal Inference and explainable AI; Uncertainties quantification and Bayesian statistics. Attendees of the AI in Science and Engineering Day will learn about the Carpentries and how they facilitate collaboration.

MIDAS is a leader among academic data science institutes to promote ethical data and AI, which offers the postdoc program a unique feature. Dr. Jagadish notes, “Our program’s emphasis on ethical and responsible data and AI science is essential for ensuring that AI is used to advance scientific discovery in a way that benefits society as a whole.”

For more information, please visit our program page.

MIDAS Data Science Fellow Elyse Thulin Awarded Best Poster by a Trainee at the UCSF Promoting Research in Social Media and Health Symposium 

By | Feature, News, Research, research papers
Elyse Thulin

At the 2022 UCSF Promoting Research in Social Media and Health Symposium, Elyse Thulin, a Postdoctoral Fellow at MIDAS and at the Addiction Center in the department of Psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, was awarded Best Poster by a Trainee.

Using traditional epidemiologic, mixed qualitative and quantitative, and computational machine learning methods, Elyse’s broad program of research focuses on how people use online and virtual spaces to interact in ways that both hinder and support wellbeing, mental health, and changes in substance use behaviors. More specifically, Elyse’s areas of research include cyber dating violence, online substance use recovery support groups, and online support groups for traumatic change/loss. Computational skills greatly enhance her work as it enables her to scrape data from online sources, utilize natural language processing to identify top terms, themes, and sentiment from text, and efficiently expand traditional qualitative methods to efficiently code thousands of posts. Elyse’s long term goal is to become a faculty member who teaches, mentors students, and conducts research around expanded applications of computational social science for health and wellbeing.

Online public support group for recovery from problematic cannabis use: trends of use and topics of discussion Elyse J. Thulin, PhD, Anne Fernandez, PhD, Erin Bonar, PhD, Maureen Walton, PhD

Download a PDF version of the poster here.

Elyse provided the following statement about her research:

“Over the past two decades, there have been significant increases in cannabis consumption in the U.S., tied to greater state legalization of recreational (21 states) and medical (37 states) cannabis use, new routes of administration (e.g., vaping, dabbing, edibles), and increased potency of THC. This is worrying given increases in emergency-room injuries related to cannabis use and the increased prevalence of cannabis use disorders (CUD). Despite increased risk of injury related to cannabis and growing prevalence of cannabis use disorder, admission rates for clinical treatment are down, and more than 85% of who would qualify as having CUD do not receive clinical forms of treatment. In contrast, in recent years there has been an uptick in the use of online nonclinical services for those looking to change their cannabis use behaviors. Despite this uptick, very little is known at this time about the functionality, content and interactions occurring within non-clinical, online spaces. In this poster presentation, I aimed to begin to fill this gap by identifying the major themes of conversation, contextualizing information of those themes, and overlap in the present themes with 4 domains of recovery proposed by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in a publicly available online community of individuals who are aiming to cease using cannabis.

I used a data-driven approach to inform the methods of this study. I scraped data from 10 years from a popular Reddit forum on cannabis cessation. I then evaluated the growth of the community across the 10 year period. I next used pre-processing NLP methods (e.g., case uniformity, stemming, etc.) to ready the data for analysis, then identified the top words and terms present in posts. Finally, I extracted a subset of posts to analyze by hand using qualitative methods, to determine the context around top words and phrases. The growth of the community and top words can be found on the poster. Most importantly, we found five major themes in the present study present in posts to the online cannabis cessation community: 1.) individual identify & cannabis use; consequences of cannabis use; reasons for change; cessation strategies; and consequences of change. While examples within these five themes overlapped with the three SAMHSA domains of health, community and purpose, the domain of home was less common and may be less pertinent to this community. Simultaneously, many posts referenced individual identity and cannabis use in posts. Examples were “I smoked daily for ten years” and “I took my first tok at 14, and by 16 I was using in the morning, afternoon and night”. In the context of a common (but incorrect) public narrative that cannabis is not harmful or addictive, individuals in this community may find it important to share the frequency or longevity of their experiences to help emphasize the significant role that cannabis had in their day to day lives. It may be that increased public awareness of that cannabis can be addictive and harmful, particularly when use begins in adolescence or early adulthood or is heavy and frequent, would create greater opportunities for individuals who have experienced dependence or are wanting to change their cannabis use behaviors.”

MIDAS Challenge Award lead Dr. Stephanie Teasley and collaborator Dr. Kelly discuss learning analytics, higher education and employment

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Based on an NSF-funded workshop, Drs. Teasley (School of Information) and Kelly discuss learning analytics goals and research priorities for the coming decade.  They report on a research agenda that would strengthen the connection between learning analytics and recognition of learner competencies. This could have a transformative impact on the relationship between higher education and employment.  The agenda will also generate significant new research questions leading to insights about learning and the data science techniques for analyzing learning.

Read more:

A MIDAS Challenge Award team, led by Stuart Soroka (Communication and Media & Political Science), works with CNN on a Sentiment Analysis about the 2020 election candidates

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A MIDAS Challenge Award team, led by Stuart Soroka, professor of Communication and Media & Political Science, works with CNN on a Sentiment Analysis of recalled news about the candidates for the U.S. 2020 election. The analysis shows Net Sentiment for all respondents, then each of the Democratic, Independent and Republican respondents.

Data scientists and artists team up to demonstrate “fair representation”

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Depictions of people in museum visual arts collections often reflect the histories of inclusion and exclusion. For example, museum collections in the 1920s likely reflect much less the lives of African Americans than those in the 1960s. U-M Museum of Art’s (UMMA) entire collection of ~24,000 pieces of artwork, spanning 150 years, has been digitized.  A group of data scientists and artists will apply algorithms to recognize faces and to examine how art collections can (mis)represent humanity and how that representation changes with time.  

The project team includes: 

This project, funded by the U-M Arts Initiative, is the result of months of discussion about how data science and arts can give each other a stronger voice to promote social justice.

The issue of fair and unbiased representation looms large as Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are impacting many aspects of our society, from political messaging to targeted marketing, from parole granting to hiring practices.   With biased data, algorithms will reach superficially compelling but ultimately false conclusions and amplify the biases and the injustices that exist in the data.  This project will illustrate this point by generating a collection of composite representations of human faces from the UMMA dataset, and presenting these representations through an art installation, interactive digital displays and narratives.  Through this new way to communicate research that is understandable, meaningful, and impactful to the public, this project highlights the caveats that lie beneath Big Data and AI applications and inspire the public to participate in shaping our transition into a data-driven society.

Read more:

MIDAS Challenge Award team collaborates with CNN and provides polling expertise

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Drs. Josh Pasek (LSA Communication and Media), Michael Traugott (LSA Political Science), Ceren Budak (School of Information) and Stuart Soroka (LSA Communication and Media), along with their Georgetown colleagues, have been collaborating with CNN to improve survey questions and carry out data analysis.  This work is partly an extension of the Challenge Award project that MIDAS has funded.  Read more: