ASU graduate aims to demystify AI through children's book

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

How do we understand the story of artificial intelligence? Student Kacy Hatfield Kacy Hatfield Download Full Image

Kacy Hatfield is a student in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts who aims to make the story of AI accessible to all – and is doing so by writing a children’s book. Kacy is graduating this May with a degree in digital culture, and is an undergraduate researcher for the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics.

After graduation, she will pursue a master's degree and has been invited to participate in the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs

She shared more about her college journey below. 

Question: Tell us a bit about your experience at ASU and how you came to study digital culture.

Answer: I actually came to ASU as a biochemistry major; I love chemistry and math, but the career path wasn't exactly what I wanted. I then explored career and creative job opportunities where I found digital culture and in just three days I was hooked and made the switch. And there is still so much of what I love in studying AI, and I get to integrate my love for chemistry and math into that. 

I actually hadn't even heard of machine learning until spring 2021, and after my professor introduced it to us, I asked her for book recommendations. From then on, I was obsessed with AI.

Q: What inspired you to pursue undergraduate research? 

A: Well, I actually did my honors thesis shortly after I learned about AI and machine learning. I decided that I wanted to pursue it, even though I really didn’t know much about the subject, and I pitched it to several professors I wanted to work with, who all were very supportive. I defended my thesis almost exactly a year after I had first learned about machine learning, and I just had such an amazing time working on my thesis that I wanted to continue doing research. 

I then found the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, which had an undergraduate research opportunity on responsible AI. I met with Research Program Manager Erica O’Neil over Zoom, and I thought it would be the perfect continuation of my work. It’s amazing to keep doing research on this, not just to learn but to ultimately come away with more questions. 

Q: You're working on a really fascinating project, in which you’re developing a children’s book on AI. Can you share more on this project? 

A: The premise is an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of an algorithm named Pip — like the command in Python Programming Language — and Pip has to classify seashells on the beach. How Pip classifies them starts out in very simple terms, and as waves wash up on the shore, more advanced terminology is revealed. There’s also a character named Epoch — another term in Python — as well as a character that represents the human in the loop. All of them are placed very strategically to represent what would take place if a machine learning algorithm were to be integrated in this area. 

Image of a book cover for Your Pal, PipThe goal is to help people feel less scared about machine learning. I often see AI described as a black box; something that that people can't see into, and can't understand. But I think the test of a good machine learning algorithm – and a good programmer — is to translate that black box into something that is easily understood.

Part of the reason I love machine learning is because even if I dedicate my entire life to studying AI, I will never have a fully comprehensive grasp of it, because it's just always expanding and advancing so fast. I think that's key in why people feel uncertainty about machine learning, especially when the Hollywood narrative of AI is the humanoid robot that is going to take over. The thing is, these technologies are amoral, not immoral. 

My goal as a researcher is to start mitigating skepticism around the subject of machine learning through this book. And this starts with younger people, but the book is also meant to be used by people of all ages. 

Q: How has your time in the responsible AI research group related back to your work? 

A: I love being in this research group. It's actually my second semester; last semester I did a project on the risks and mitigations of AI-powered autonomous spacecraft, which is another one of my interests. It’s so awesome to be part of a group of people that have such different backgrounds and different approaches to AI. There are so many interdisciplinary perspectives and topics brought up in discussion. 

I think that in terms of responsible AI – and a lot of people may disagree with me on this – it is integral for a programmer to also be able to see the ethical implications of whatever they're employing into the world. There’s often the argument that we should wait five years before evaluating those possible impacts; when I am working on programming, I'm immediately thinking about how it may affect the real world and be used. 

Machine learning is like a mirror - it's going to reflect whatever we give it, and humans are not perfect. This is why I think the conversations on ethics have to go hand in hand with the research itself, and it's really interesting to see how it comes about on all different fronts.

Q: What comes next for you in your career and future?

A: That’s the age-old question, isn’t it? I always have a list of problems that I can research! This may be a nerdy confession, but I love doing research even in my free time. I hope to direct that energy into the pursuit of a master's degree and possibly even a PhD. I have also been invited to join the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs in summer 2023 as an undergraduate engineer, which is a very exciting opportunity. 

The amazing thing about this field is it's always changing, and in some regard, I will always feel like a student. And because the study of AI is so new, I feel like taking the ethical and programming approach at the same time would be a lot easier to integrate than something that's already established. I hope to keep these skills as best practices in the future. 

There is a lot of skepticism around AI and machine learning, and often I hear people say that it’s too complicated or complex. Everybody has the capability to understand AI, and it's not as scary as it seems. Even though it's been tremendously skewed for entertainment, which makes it easier to vilify, there are so many benefits to using machine learning, and we can employ it in the right ways to augment our human experience and not hinder it.

Karina Fitzgerald

Communications program coordinator , Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics


International human rights, law school is ASU graduate's future focus

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

There are some ASU students who are so involved on and off-campus that it seems impossible that they fit everything into the 24 hours in a day.  Brooke Zanon Download Full Image

Brooke Zanon is a Barrett, The Honors College student graduating from Arizona State University this May with a Bachelor of Arts in global studies and political science, as well as a minor in French. 

Zanon grew up in Phoenix and had planned to go to college out of state, but after touring the Tempe campus during her senior year at Millennium High School in Goodyear, she decided on ASU as she immediately felt like she was at home.  

Zanon has received the Moeur Award, ASU Alumni Association Medallion Scholarship, the New American University Dean’s Award and the Hispanic Leadership Forum del Oeste Scholarship during her time with ASU. The Medallion Scholarship Program provides incoming ASU students who have received the Dean’s Scholarship with an additional scholarship, mentoring opportunities and more. The program led Zanon to her job at the Arizona Senate, where she worked during her freshman, sophomore and junior years, and to many networking opportunities. She is also a nominated student leader for the School of Politics and Global Studies and a member of Pi Sigma Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa.

She is the former policy chair for March For Our Lives ASU and the former director of external affairs for Barrett as well as being a Junior Fellow Research Assistant in the School of Politics and Global Studies for Associate Professor Tara Lennon, and a Barrett College Research Fellow for Associate Professor Keon McGuire.

She also works as the international project assistant for ASU’s Office of Global Academic Initiatives.

She discusses her college career below.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I knew I was interested in international relations and politics before coming to ASU. However, taking an honors class on human rights atrocities during my sophomore year with visiting scholar Simon Adams cemented my interest in international human rights. Adams’ passion and expertise as a renowned leader in his field, having led advocacy efforts at the United Nations and various governments worldwide to help prevent genocide and crimes against humanity, was infectious. That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue international human rights as my future career. After this class, I continued taking courses specific to human rights, including International Human Rights Law at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, and loved every second.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: While my perspectives constantly evolved each semester at ASU, one of my most significant learning experiences occurred during my junior year study abroad trip. Studying in Lyon, France, I took a class on government and politics in France, where I learned about the country’s institutional, social and political discrimination against Muslim immigrants and communities – even witnessing it myself many times. These experiences helped pique my interest in international relations and led me to the Barrett College Research Fellow program once I returned home. Here, I worked with Professor Keon McGuire on his research project titled "Black Muslim Worldmaking," which focused on how marginalized communities face microaggressions and continue to succeed in higher and post-secondary institutions.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Since I’ve had so many excellent professors at ASU, picking just one is hard. However, I would say that Professor Isaac Joslin, my thesis director, taught me countless important lessons by providing unparalleled instruction, resources and insight regarding my studies. He was also a great support system while I was writing my thesis and consistently met with me to help develop, expand and correct not just my work but also my personal worldviews. I learned so much from him and deeply appreciate all the help he’s given me throughout my time at ASU.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I’m excited to intern for Congress during the summer and then attend Georgetown Law in the fall! I plan to work somewhere in the legal realm of public policy, international relations and advocacy.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would use that money to build and staff state-of-the-art, no-kill facilities for homeless animals. I’ve been a huge animal lover since I was a kid, and I volunteer at the Arizona Humane Society every week, so it’s a personal issue for me. It’s really disheartening to see abused or neglected animals who never get adopted, so I’d love to create a safe and stress-free environment for them until they find a forever home.

Grace Peserik

Communications Assistant, School of Politics and Global Studies