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ASU student and hackathon enthusiast explores bridge between humanities, technology

Group of men standing for group picture holding trophies.

Mannan Anand (third from left) at HackPrinceton, a hackathon at Princeton University, with his teammate Shaashvat Mittal (third from right), another ASU student, and Major League Hacking organizers. Courtesy photo

April 22, 2024

While science and the humanities are seemingly two completely different worlds, the truth is they often go hand in hand.

Mannan Anand, a second-year student at Arizona State University studying computer science and mathematics, has dedicated his academic pursuits to highlighting how the sciences and humanities can work together.

He has also been a part of the Lincoln Center Chautauqua Advisory Committee, brought in prestigious hackathon accolades and is one of the youngest leaders in University Housing at Barrett, The Honors College.

ASU News sat down with Mannan to talk about his experience as an international student, his research into ethics and AI, and his recent victories at hackathons across the nation.

Note: Answers have been lightly edited for length or clarity.

Question: Tell us a bit about your background and what you're most interested in studying right now.

Answer: I spent most of my life in western India, plus some crucial years of schooling in Germany. Having studied under three curriculums with such different cultures exposed me to both the academic rigor and the importance of having a holistic development at the same time, which is why I'm pursuing a double degree in computer science and math, with a concentration in statistics. 

This combination really ties in with what I'm passionate about — understanding how technology can influence societal norms and behaviors. It shapes our perceptions, influences our emotions, and constructs our realities. Data is both qualitative and quantitative. So, how can I study emotions that are impacting the general opinion of people? What kind of immediate, midterm, or long-term actions do we need to have? In the advent of AI and accessibility to digital platforms, these are topics that really excite me.

Q: As an international student, what brought you to ASU, and how do your studies relate to you choosing ASU?

A: This reminds me of how my friends here joke about me not really fitting the stereotypical description of an engineer, but the perfect fit for Barrett. And I don’t blame them — back home (India) for high school, we had to lock in on either the core sciences or core humanities subjects but were unable to opt for a hybrid approach. While I was strongly inclined to choose the humanities stream, I chose core sciences just to be able to pursue computer science.

Thus, I always had an inclination for Barrett, The Honors College at ASU, which provided me with just the right combination. Honors classes like The Human Event educated me in literature, debate and discussion. Easy access to flexible research projects on top of my engineering degree was a real selling point for me. Of course, there are more things that go into choosing a university. ASU provides all of this at such an incredible value, with its wonderful professors, wonderful culture, and the perfect winters.

Q: You've recently won the first prize at HackPrinceton, among other nationwide hackathons! How did hackathons become part of your journey, and how has that enriched your experience as a student?

A: I was initially hesitant to participate in them, as hackathons seemed like really daunting challenges. However, the vibrant hackathon culture at ASU with “Devils Invent” every other month helped break this barrier. Hackathons are just like “hacking” your way into last-minute assignment submissions. It's where the intense pressure and high stakes create a space where anything seems achievable. You are pushed to move past doubts and just dive into the work.

I am lucky to have an amazing teammate, which is incredibly important for these competitions. I have also learnt that being scared of unfamiliarity with development tools is irrational — instead, capitalizing on my ideas and creativity, mainly focusing on the bigger picture, makes implementing them very, very easy. And implementing these solutions led to our respective victories in Georgia Tech and Princeton University.

Q: You recently worked on a project assessing political biases and large language models like ChatGPT. Do you want to go into more of what your experience was like examining the intersections of this tech and ethics?

A: I was fascinated by how we trust these large language models (LLMs) like GPT and Gemini for unbiased insights despite them being shaped by human biases, so I wanted to understand their potential and limitations. Periodically evaluating LLMs for data polarization and priming effects uncovered a noticeable shift from their prior “centrism” to a more “progressive-libertarian” stance. But what surprised me most was ChatGPT’s diversion to unexpected endorsements of conservative views only on controversial topics, and its capacity to generate dangerously provocative content with basic priming, resembling speech patterns of simple individuals.

I am incredibly grateful to be mentored by Dr. Erica O'Neil from the Lincoln Center and Director Joshua Garland from the Center on Narrative, Disinformation and Strategic Influence. They helped me navigate the fine line between technical analysis and ethical implications, which taught me the importance of interdisciplinary thinking — how technical prowess is often a result of sourcing data and labor through ethical tightropes.

As much as this project was about uncovering biases, it has motivated me to contribute to raising awareness for the need of ethical guardrails and frameworks. 

Q: You find yourself at the crux of these two disciplines: the humanities and the sciences. How does this broader lens impact the outcomes of your research?

A: Bridging engineering with insights from the humanities offers a unique perspective in research. Both have their strengths. Typically, engineering is very data driven, focusing on numbers, patterns and clear, measurable outcomes. However, incorporating humanities encourages us to look beyond the numbers to the stories they tell, the cultural impacts, and the ethical implications behind the data.

My professors and I collaborate with experts across various disciplines, aiming to create comprehensive frameworks that evaluate biases not just quantitatively but also through the lens of human experience, which help us evaluate for echo-chambering and other political biases, which would otherwise be really difficult to detect.

I believe, moving forward, it is going to be all the more important, as today the boundaries are blurring even further. 

Q: You’ve accomplished so much during your short time at ASU, notably with your research projects and as a voice for the honors community on the University Housing Advisory Board. If you could offer one piece of advice to Sun Devils who are just now starting in their academic career, what would that be?

A: Take the first step, and then lead by example.

I know it sounds cliche, but I entered ASU with the same fear of judgment that grapples many freshmen. ... However, the simple act of reaching out led to me getting mentored by Nobel laureate Dr. Leeland Hartwell for my first research project. I never thought this was even possible! This taught me the power of initiating contact and the importance of embracing opportunities, no matter how unfamiliar.

And about leading by example? Start somewhere, anywhere! Your actions might just pave the way for not just your growth but also inspire others around you. I'm thankful for ASU’s innovative environment that encourages questioning norms and values that drive change. As a residential assistant, I was given the freedom to take initiatives to drive up residential engagements for honors freshmen. It worked out well, and I was elected to represent them and lead my department as a residential experience coordinator.

Q: Two years from now, where do you see yourself? What are the ambitions that you have for the next two years of your academic career?

A: I plan to keep researching how large language models are starting to talk in a more neutral, diplomatic way. It's interesting, but it makes me wonder if that's really what we want. This neutrality can help dodge controversies, but what comes after that? Today, these AI systems are even getting offered on mainstream social media platforms, blending into how we get recommendations and interact online. There's a lot of new ground to cover here, and is likely going to be the direction I take for my thesis.

My ambition extends to engaging in hackathons and pursuing internships that align with these interests, allowing me to grow an understanding for the ethical application of AI in our lives. 

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