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ASU graduate uses AI and machine learning expertise to craft more secure future

PhD student Jamie Winterton named an Outstanding Graduate from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society

Portrait of ASU staffer and graduate Jamie Winterton.

Jamie Winterton, courtesy photo

November 22, 2023

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

During her time at Arizona State University, Jamie Winterton brought extensive experience in research to both her role as a PhD student and her former position as the senior director of research strategy for ASU’s Global Security Initiative

She was inspired to conduct further research into cybersecurity after an experience presenting expert testimony to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law in 2017. She spoke on the implications of large-scale data breaches for national security. 

“This hearing was in response to the Equifax data breach, in which 145.5 million credit records were stolen,” she said. “During that hearing, Richard Smith, the former CEO of Equifax, blamed the data breach on one single employee who, according to Smith, failed to install a software patch. Smith then retired with a $90 million ‘golden parachute.’ This event really got me thinking about misaligned incentives in cybersecurity, and wondering how we could do a better job at the U.S. federal level of protecting people and their sensitive data.”

As graduation draws near, Winterton’s advice to ASU students still working toward their degrees is to ask themselves a few questions and reflect on their purpose. 

“Ask yourself, ‘If I’m a success, what difference will it make,” she said. “What future impact is driving your pursuit? Whose life will be better because you’re here now, doing what you’re doing today? If you can answer these questions, you’ll make it through. That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard, but you’ll have a solid foundation to get through the difficult times.”

As an ASU alumna and existing employee, it was an easy choice for Winterton to pursue her degree here. She took advantage of the employee tuition reduction program offered to eligible staff, which helped make a doctoral degree more affordable.

The human and social dimensions of science and technology PhD program gave me the flexibility to build a research project that was interesting, multidisciplinary and manageable given the demands of my professional position and family life,” she said. 

Winterton will receive her PhD from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, housed within the College of Global Futures.

After graduation, Winterton will work as chief research officer at Boston Fusion, a small defense research and development company to help develop new artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches that can address complex defense and security challenges.

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

Answer: If I had to pick just one thing that changed my perspective, it would be learning how academia works. I came to ASU after more than 10 years as a research scientist in industry, and it has been fascinating to learn more about the role universities play in research and to help guide that trajectory. I learned a lot in my classes and in my degree program as well, but the most impactful thing I learned from my time at ASU is the role academia plays in the broader research ecosystem.

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

A: I definitely can't narrow it down to a single professor and a single lesson, but I deeply appreciated Andrew Maynard's perspective as a fellow physicist approaching complex sociotechnical problems. Diana Bowman also pushed me to develop a more international perspective in understanding governance and regulation, which I also appreciate.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My advisor, Andrew Maynard, created a wonderful collaboration space on the first floor of ISTBX (formerly Wrigley Hall). It's not a classroom or a conference room — it's just a comfortable and bright space with great energy. I spent a lot of time thinking, writing my dissertation and conversing with colleagues there.

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

A: Generative AI can do some incredible things, but not all of them are positive for humanity. I'm especially concerned about the ease with which AI can create very convincing yet completely false content — both text and imagery. Generative AI has already been used by foreign adversaries who are trying to erode the foundations of democracy in the United States. So if I had $40 million, I'd create a large-scale project to look at ways in which we could automatically identify AI-generated content, as well as create unique "watermarks" for certain algorithms, like a seal of approval, that aren't immediately apparent and can't be duplicated. I think with $40 million, we could make some reasonable progress in that area.

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