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ASU Global Futures PhD graduate explores ethics, societal implications of AI


a headshot of JP Nelson sitting on a set of stairs

John “JP” Nelson will be joining the Georgia Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral research fellow working on their AI Manufacturing Project.

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April 28, 2023

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

During a campus visit in 2014, John “JP” Nelson briefly sat in on a graduate course being taught by ASU President Michael Crow and Professor Daniel Sarewitz. The topic, “Science, Technology and Public Affairs,” piqued his interest.

The conversations from that day covered a range of topics, from government-supported funding of scientific research to the history of nuclear power. For Nelson, this experience not only influenced his decision to attend ASU for his undergraduate studies, but also helped lay the foundation of his career trajectory.

“I found this class so exciting and compelling that I knew I wanted to take it,” Nelson said. “When I did take the course in the spring of 2016, it confirmed to me that I wanted to study the social processes of technological change and the relationships between science, technology, government and society."

A bachelor’s degree simply wasn’t enough, and the positive experience Nelson had at ASU encouraged him to stick around and continue his doctoral studies with the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. In addition to the knowledge and professionalism of his professors and colleagues, he also credits kindness and support from faculty, staff and fellow students as essential contributions to his success at ASU. 

Nine years after this initial introduction to the Sun Devil community, Nelson will graduate with a PhD in human and social dimensions of science and technology from ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, housed within the College of Global Futures. Three years of his education were supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, funding that was secured with support from faculty and academic advisors.

His time at ASU has well prepared him for the next step in his professional life – he will be joining the Georgia Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral research fellow working on their AI Manufacturing Project.

Nelson shares more about his academic journey below.

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

Answer: Here’s one that’s a bit embarrassing for me. As I mentioned, I received my bachelor’s degree from ASU in 2018. I attended the Barrett, The Honors College graduation with (Assitant Research Professor) Lauren Withycombe Keeler. She was one of my honors thesis advisors, a really creative and brilliant scholar and someone who truly demonstrates what it means for a professor to care about every student in their classes. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with all the pomp and circumstance of academic celebrations. When balloons started falling from the ceiling, I mentioned something of the sort to Lauren. Wasn’t all this procession and speechifying and fancy decoration a little much?

“Well,” she said to me, “some of these students may never have been shown before that academic accomplishment is something that’s valued and can be rewarded.” That might be obvious to you, but it really shut me up. It crystallized for me how my own particular life experience limited and shaped my understanding of other people. I like to think that I strive to understand other folks’ experiences and perspectives, but clearly I could still be doing a lot more.

I think it’s valuable to remember that almost anything anyone does, even if it doesn’t make sense from my point of view, has a good reason behind it. Even if I want to convince someone to change their priorities or behavior, I’ll have to empathize with where they’re coming from to have any chance of success. And I certainly shouldn’t condemn something before understanding what it's good for.

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

A: Find mentors, friends and colleagues who support and care for you, and do the same for them. Not to be trite, but people need people. Don’t be afraid to reach out to peers, professors and recruiters. Not everyone will be responsive, but some will. In my own, admittedly highly personal experience, I’ve found ASU’s faculty and staff to be remarkably friendly and supportive in general. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t be afraid to stop doing things that aren’t working for you. The only way to find areas of study, careers, friends, mentors, communities or hobbies is to try a bunch and stick with the ones that work for you.

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

A: I have a hard time pointing to any drastic moments of revelation — changes in perspective tend to be more gradual and incremental, in my experience — but I find myself repeatedly coming back to the work of the political scientist Charles Lindblom on collective decision-making. Lindblom’s work argues that most large-scale decisions to be made by human societies are too complicated and have too many different potential implications and outcomes to be fully understood by any single group, theoretical perspective or method of analysis. So, we should try to make sure everyone to be affected by a particular decision has a say in how it turns out, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it genuinely produces better decisions. The real measure of whether a collective decision is good is not a cost-benefit analysis from any one perspective, but whether most affected people agree on it.

Decisions shaped and agreed to by more affected people integrate and respect the specific knowledge, interests and values of each of those people, which no single perspective could achieve on its own. In short, Lindblom’s arguments suggest that genuinely democratic decision-making across all sectors of society not only is morally preferable but tends to produce more reliably and broadly beneficial decisions. Of course, fairly and equitably integrating the voice of everyone who stands to be affected by a given decision into that decision is ultimately impossible, but it seems to be the best ideal to strive for.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m moving to Atlanta to work as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). I’ll be part of the ethics and societal implications team for Georgia Tech’s AI Manufacturing Project, a $65 million U.S. Department of Commerce grant intended to build out advanced manufacturing and workforce development programs in Georgia. Our job is to help the project better serve and respect public needs and values.

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

A: The difficult thing is that $40 million isn’t very much on the scale of the big problems that vex our world. Worldwide annual expenditures on research and development alone exceed $2 trillion. The U.S. Department of Defense's budget exceeds $800 billion per year. So, should I allocate $40 million to make a big impact on a local problem — maybe donate it to an underfunded school district? Or should I make it one more drop in the river of money directed toward a national or global problem, such as decay in democracy, poverty or climate change?

If I had to use the money myself, I’d probably use it to support a program exploring more effective mechanisms for matching research and development funding with societal needs, simply because that’s what I’m most competent to do. If I could do whatever I wanted with the money, I’d probably donate it to an organization that works to counteract economic injustice (a major labor union, for example), which I think is the root of many of our contemporary political crises and the recent drift toward authoritarianism in many democracies.

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