ASU philosophy graduate awarded Dean’s Medal: 'It’s never too late to start learning'

April 24, 2023

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

Anna Gutmann moved around a lot as a child, but now calls Chardon, Ohio, home. While earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Akron, she took three introductory philosophy courses as electives and knew that she would return to school one day to get a degree in philosophy. Anna Gutmann is photographer wearing a mutli-colored knitted hat next to her big golden-colored dog. Anna Gutmann Download Full Image

“As a person who loves solving puzzles, I knew the thought experiments and debates that philosophy opened my mind to was right up my alley,” Gutmann said.

She enrolled as an online student at Arizona State University and is graduating this spring with her bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a concentration in morality, politics and law from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

Not only is she graduating with the degree she said she would come back for, but the school’s award committee unanimously awarded her the Dean’s Medal. 

“One faculty member reports that the quality of (her) assignments this semester (have) been ‘unparalleled’; and that they consistently rise to the level of graduate-level scholarship,” said Ben Phillips, assistant professor of philosophy and the awards committee chair. “Multiple faculty members also expressed the view that (she) is very conscientious, and that she strives to make a positive difference in the world. This is reflected in her resume, which details her work at a youth shelter and her work as an emergency foster parent.”

Aside from her studies, Gutmann holds a certification in trauma-informed caregiving and is trained in Trust Based Relational Intervention.

“Receiving the Dean’s Medal is a huge honor that I did not anticipate,” Gutmann said. “I feel very humbled and am so grateful for the support of my professors. More than anything, receiving the Dean’s Medal solidifies that it’s never too late to start learning and that the pursuit of knowledge is never a waste of time.”

We caught up with Gutmann to ask her about her time at ASU, her future plans and her advice to current students. 

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

Answer: In my first semester, I took Jacob Affolter’s PHI 336 course on Social and Political Philosophy. Despite my love of ethics and prior experience in sociology, I have never been a fan of political theories. However, Professor Affolter opened my mind to the intricacies of each political theory from the ground up. To this day, what I learned in that class forever altered the way I approach debates on politics and how I consider and understand the argument from all angles.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: While I applied to many online colleges, I felt ASU stood out because of the care the university took to stay in contact with me and help answer my questions. The variety of major-specific courses offered in this format were much greater than any other program I applied to. In fact, I wish my time at ASU hadn’t ended so quickly, because there are still about five more courses I would’ve taken just for the sake of knowledge.

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

A: This is such a hard question. All my professors taught me such great things that I feel it’s almost a disservice not to mention them all. But if I’m forced I’d pick, I would select assistant teaching Professor Thad Botham, who taught PHI 300: Philosophical Argument and Exposition. While the original intro to logic course I took at University of Akron taught me basic argumentative structure in equation format, Botham took that knowledge to a whole new level and applied it to actual philosophical writing techniques. Without his teachings on logic and argumentative structure, I don’t think I’d have been successful in any class that followed. My takeaway from him was that formal logic is essential to any philosophical pursuit. Additionally, I learned patience and dedication is key when doing philosophy or teaching others to do philosophy.

Post-graduation, Botham also gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever heard for applying to PhD programs in pursuit of a career in academia, but you’d have to ask him for his secret, because I don’t want to give it away without his permission.

I also have to give a special thank you to associate teaching Professor Sandra Woien, who taught me to have more faith in my writing skills. She also gave me the encouragement and advice I needed to start applying for graduate programs.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: For those still in school in general: Don’t give up, and don’t stop. For those still in school studying philosophy: Don’t give up, and don’t stop writing.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: My favorite spot for power studying is on the couch next to my bookcase full of textbooks, so I have easy access to learning material on one side and a dog or cat curled up with me on the other.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am currently working on compiling materials to apply to graduate programs for philosophy, where I hope to focus on logic and ethics.

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

A: This is also a very hard question. I might need a couple days — or centuries — to sit on this one before giving you a response because there are so many problems, and so many different opinions on what the solution for each might be — ranging from, “where do all the lost socks from the laundry machine go” all the way to “how do I incite world peace?”

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

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