Opening the black box

ASU researchers innovate decision-making in design space exploration

August 25, 2023

Every second of the day presents us with choices, from deciding what to wear in the morning to picking from a menu at dinner. Whether a decision is trivial or life-altering, decision-making is a fundamental element of the human experience.

It’s always easy to question whether a person made the right choice. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell until consequences are revealed later. Two ASU researchers look at a computer. Professor Aviral Shrivastava (left) and doctoral candidate Shail Dave (right) are working on research to improve design space exploration, a crucial component in designing deep-learning accelerators that optimize how efficiently computers run artificial intelligence algorithms. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

In hardware and software architecture domains, engineers use a technology called design space exploration to assist in evaluating choices during the computer architecture design process to identify the best-performing design among the available options.

Design space exploration technology can choose a preferred option based on desired outcomes like speed, power consumption and accuracy. The technology can be applied to a variety of applications, from object or human recognition software to high-level microelectronics.

Deep learning, a method in artificial intelligence inspired by the human brain, teaches computers to process data. Designs of deep-learning accelerators, which are computers that specialize in efficiently running deep-learning algorithms for artificial intelligence, rely on design space exploration to choose from their extensive lists of options. Because some of these accelerator designs have billions upon billions of choices to evaluate, existing processes for optimization can take days or even weeks to complete, even when evaluating only a small fraction of the choices.

The process is further complicated by black box explorations, which deep-learning accelerators rely on to make decisions. Black box explorations are designed to process information without revealing any details about their reasoning.

Shail Dave, a computer engineering doctoral candidate in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, is working to fix this problem with explainable design space exploration, a framework of algorithms and systems that will enable researchers and processor designers to understand the reasoning behind deep-learning accelerator designs by analyzing and mitigating the bottlenecks slowing down the process.

Delving into decision-making 

“Typically, hardware and software designs are explored and optimized through black box mechanisms like evolutionary algorithms or AI-based approaches like reinforcement learning and Bayesian optimization,” Dave says. “These black box mechanisms require excessive amounts of trial runs because of their lack of explainability and reasoning involved in how selecting a design configuration affects the design’s overall quality.”

By streamlining the accelerator’s decision-making process, Dave’s research allows design methods to make choices much faster, taking only minutes compared with the days or weeks it can take existing models to process this information. As a result, design optimization models are smaller, more systematic and use less energy.

Dave’s research offers an alternative that not only improves search efficiency, but also helps engineers reach optimal outcomes and get insights into design decisions. By understanding the reasoning behind design choices and related bottlenecks, the method can analyze available design points at every step of the process and determine the good and bad options before offering its decision, which is made deliberately by the technology after evaluating the most promising options available.

Dave notes that his algorithms can also fine-tune design parameters in various use cases. For example, the algorithms can budget power in batteries for maximum efficiency in devices ranging in size from a smartphone to powerful processors in a supercomputer while finishing the application processing in the desired time.

Most notably, Dave’s algorithm can explore design solutions that are relevant to multiple applications, such as those that differ in functionality or processing characteristics, while also addressing their inefficiencies in executing the product. This is important because many of today’s artificial intelligence-based applications require multimodal processing, which means one accelerator design may need to be used to complete multiple tasks.

“The great thing about this work is that it formalizes how to leverage a system’s information for making informed decisions and can be applied across a wide variety of uses and different industries where these target systems need improvements and explainability in the process,” Dave says. “We’re analyzing how to get the best performance for any given architecture configuration with different constraints, depending on what the user prioritizes as the most important need.”

Presenting algorithm findings

Dave’s paper on this research, titled “Explainable-DSE: An Agile and Explainable Exploration of Efficient Hardware/Software Codesigns of Deep Learning Accelerators Using Bottleneck Analysis,” has been accepted into the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2024 International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems, or ASPLOS, a premier academic forum for multidisciplinary computer systems research spanning hardware, software and the interaction between the two fields.

In addition, Dave’s research was awarded second place in the graduate category of the 2022 Association for Computing Machinery Student Research Competition, recognizing his work as being among the most important student research in computer science and engineering in the world.

Aviral Shrivastava, a professor of computer science and engineering in the Fulton Schools and Dave’s mentor and collaborator on the research, says he is proud to see Dave celebrated for his hard work.

“It takes a very motivated student to achieve this kind of success,” Shrivastava says. “There is so much thought, intricacy and detail that goes into research like this. You really need to work with strong researchers, and Shail has been one of them on my team.”

Real-world applications

Dave and Shrivastava are also working together to apply this research to the semiconductor industry with the Artificial Intelligence Hardware program for Semiconductor Research Corporation, which addresses existing and emerging challenges in information and communication technologies and supports research to overcome the challenge of transforming the designing and manufacturing of future microchips.

Shrivastava notes that one of the beneficial real-world impacts of this research is that it drastically reduces the energy requirements and carbon footprint produced by this work compared to that of existing models and processes.

“Training neural networks can have the same carbon footprint as a trans-Atlantic flight,” Shrivastava says. “Being able to reduce the overall carbon footprint by making this technology more efficient will have a great global impact.”

With its significant positive environmental impact and ability to guide decision-making processes more effectively, Shrivastava sees the impact of the research having implications across almost all fields and industries.

“By designing these accelerators in a more formal, systematic and automatic way, we are saving people from endlessly searching through space without any guidance,” he says. “This technology offers an introspective, intelligent and insightful way to make sense of all the information available.”

Annelise Krafft

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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How can a positive space future be secured?

August 25, 2023

Experts come together at ASU Space Futures event to discuss prospects, challenges of humans in space

Do human beings deserve another planet? How can lessons from the past help inform space futures? What have we learned on Earth and what can we learn on Mars?

Those were just a few of the questions contemplated at the Space Futures Live presentation Thursday afternoon inside the Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health.

The event, hosted by the ASU Interplanetary Initiative, featured seven speakers, a panel discussion moderated by Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative and an ASU Regents Professor, and questions from the audience.

The overarching theme: How can a positive space future be secured?

“We need to think about our long-term values as a space-faring civilization,” said Christopher Johnson, space law advisor at the Secure World Foundation and a space law educator at Georgetown University. “I would put at the top of those values preserving peace, preserving respect for the rule of law and sustainability for future generations. And there are other notions of respecting commerce, respecting scientific investigations and respecting human life.

“I know that we need to have difficult, challenging but absolutely essential discussions about what values we’ll have when we go to space.”

In the panel discussion, Elkins-Tanton asked a single question: Do humans deserve another planet?

Woman speaking to audience at event

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of ASU Interplanetary Initiative, speaks at Space Futures Live, an innovative discussion featuring seven experts focused on shaping a positive space future, on Thursday, Aug. 24, at the Walton Center for Planetary Health. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Six of the panelists said yes, with conditions. Mary-Jane Rubenstein, a professor of religion and science in society at Wesleyan University, said no.

“My gut feeling is that we don’t; that we’ve been terrible stewards of this particular planet,” Rubenstein said. “And as much as I love, respect, admire and am ravished into admiration by science, science has been just as complicit in the destruction of the planet as anything else.

“My feelings could be wrong, though. I could sort of convince myself into the opposite.”

Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist and associate scientist at the University of Central Florida, said for pragmatic reasons — the environment, overpopulation, etc. — “it would help our globe if we extended beyond planet Earth.”

During their presentations, each of the speakers posed their own question in addressing the need for a positive space future.

Christopher Johnson: What space law innovations enable interplanetary humanity?

Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1979 Moon Agreement govern the activities of nations in outer space, Johnson said new laws are needed to guarantee a positive space future.

“When we are in a place, which is hundreds of thousands of kilometers from the nearest courthouse, a place with different gravity and environment and subject to cosmic background radiation and microbes, why would we be using terrestrial concepts and terrestrial issues and norms?” Johnson said. “So we will have to develop new ideas which assist and enable, as I say, interplanetary humanity to do that and not (repeat) all the miseries and horrors of the past.

“We need new rules which don’t create tension, which don’t create rivalry, which don’t seem to foster the potential for conflict amongst each other.”

Shannon Curry, principal investigator for the NASA Mars Maven mission: What have we learned at Earth and what can we learn at Mars?

“I picked Mars because Mars is our next natural target when we think about human exploration,” Curry said.

Curry said questions of sustainability and the governance of a new planet are vital to consider.

“What would we do if we did find life?” she said. “And how would a human presence affect an ecosystem? These are core questions that we need to think about, and especially in a timely manner, maybe the next 40 years, maybe sooner.

“Is there a guiding principle? For me, that’s science. That sounds simple, perhaps a little pie in the sky, but I’m being serious. I think its science. No one nation or entity can or should lay claim to another planet. Let science be a unifier in helping us create laws and guidelines and how we all interact going forward in space.”

Phil Metzger: How can we ensure that space resources benefit all people on Earth, not just a privileged few?

“The question presupposes that space resources will produce a gigantic benefit, and I’m convinced that they will,” Metzger said. “I’m convinced that this will actually lead to an economic revolution.”

The problem, according to Metzger: Only the wealthy will be in a position to benefit from those resources.

“You need spaceships and rockets,” Metzger said. “I’ve worked in this career my entire life and I still don’t own a functional spacesuit. Does anybody in this room own a functional spacesuit? If you don’t, you can’t go there.

“We’ve been very successful as a species. But in the future, when we try to extend civilization beyond planet Earth, we run into this problem that the technology necessary to do that is so expensive that it prohibits most of us from taking part.

“So that means we need to be asking the question: How can we create on-ramps for participation by all humanity so that we all go together into space and we’re all the owners and beneficiaries of this?”

Group of people talking in panel

Experts came together for Space Futures Live at ASU to offer their views on topics ranging from advanced robotics for water and mineral exploration to the ethics and philosophy of inhabiting terrestrial localities. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Hiro Ono, group leader of the Robotic Surface Mobility Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: How far can we (humans and robots) go?

Ono showed the audience video of JPL’s newest robot, called Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor. Or EELS, because it looks like an eel.

EELS, which is a snake-like, self-propelled robot, uses first-of-a-kind rotating propulsion units that can adapt to various terrains, including the ocean surface, in searching for life.

“That will be a discovery that is forever remembered by our remote descendants,” Ono said.

But, Ono cautioned, patience is needed before colonizing other planets.

“Sometimes I think humans get a little bit arrogant by our own causes,” he said. “The reality is, we cannot even control the climate on our own planet. So let’s remember we are going to other worlds not to occupy or colonize, but to learn. We go not to amplify our arrogance, but to become wiser. Let’s first make sure that this civilization will prosper.

Lisa Ruth Rand, assistant professor of history, California Institute of Technology: How can lessons from the past help inform space futures?

According to the European Space Agency, there are 36,000 objects of space debris larger than 10 centimeters, 1 million objects between one and 10 centimeters, and 130 million objects between one millimeter to one centimeter.

Rand used those numbers as an object lesson about how society needs to learn from its past mistakes before even thinking about colonizing space.

“Orbital debris was a relatively new problem caused by ignorance at best and negligence at worst on behalf of the United States and the Soviet Union space programs during the 1960s and 1970s,” Rand said. “I quickly learned there was much, much more to this story. Turns out not only had the space industries of the Cold War been aware of the potential dangers of orbital debris, communities around the world understood that outer space was a place that could be polluted. And they understood that from the very start of the space age.”

Rand said it’s important to think of a single word: We.

“We will go to the moon again. We will build habitats on Mars. We will take on the space debris crisis. 'We' signifies a unified homogenous human experience. It also implies a unanimous approach to inhabiting other worlds."

Jacques Arnold, project director for ethical issues at the National Center for Space Studies: Why would a nation state encourage the emergence of an interplanetary humanity?

“The prospect of extraterrestrial settlement requires or stimulates new technologies, industrial development; it can open up new economies, diversify the supply of raw materials and energy, enhance national prestige and support the policy of influence,” Arnold said. “But you also know that these reasons are similar to those which in the past and still today have led nations to conquest and colonize foreign territories.”

Given that, Arnold said, is society ready to support interplanetary humankind?

“Is it enough to reach another planet such as Mars and deposit a robot?” he said. “Or is it necessary to establish a permanent, human settlement? It’s a fact that we have to establish relations between Earth and other cellular bodies. But what kind of relations? Assistance? Domination? Independence? Autonomy? Reciprocity?

"All good questions we can’t forget.”

Top photo: Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative and principal investigator of the NASA Psyche mission (far right onstage) moderates a panel during Space Futures Live, an innovative discussion that featured seven experts focused on shaping a positive space future, on Thursday, Aug. 24, at the Walton Center for Planetary Health. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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Microbes for the mind

August 25, 2023

A team from ASU is bringing hope to families impacted by autism and Pitt-Hopkins syndrome

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

A new treatment from ASU is helping people with autism and children with a rare disorder called Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a genetic disease characterized by physical, intellectual and developmental delays.

In this first-ever, double-blind clinical trial, ASU researchers demonstrated that microbiota transplant therapy, which first uses antibiotics to eliminate bad bacteria from the intestines and then replaces it with healthy bacteria, reduces gastrointestinal symptoms and other symptoms in people with autism, as well as in children with Pitt-Hopkins.

To understand how the ASU team got to this point, you need to first go back 29 years, to when James Adams, now a professor and director of ASU’s Autism/Asperger’s Research Program, and his wife received the news that their daughter had severe autism.

A project is born 

For any parent, learning your child has a severe illness with no treatment can be shattering. This was the case for James Adams and his wife, Marie, when their daughter’s doctors informed them it was only a matter of time before she would require institutionalization. 

“We took it hard,” James says. 

Marie Adams began learning all she could and attended a conference on autism where researchers said that nutritional support could make a difference in quality of life for people with autism. 

“I was a skeptic,” admits James, “but I rapidly became a convert.” 

James began to read research into the relationship between autism and GI symptoms. One study found that antibiotic therapy could be helpful, albeit temporary.

“I realized that you could pull the weeds out of a garden, but the weeds come back,” he says. “I hypothesized that we needed to pull out the weeds with antibiotics, but then plant the garden with good bacteria.”

Recent research into the C. difficile bacteria and microbiota transplant treatment allowed Adams to have something of an epiphany — could the treatment work with autism? 

The possibility of a treatment not only mattered for his family, but for many others. Autism impacts one in 36 children in the U.S. and can present a host of difficult health, social and behavioral challenges, including gastrointestinal issues. Over 22% of people with autism deal with constipation, 13% with diarrhea and 46% report a variety of GI symptoms. 

Three people talk at table in lab

Kelley Hollie, research/lab aide; Professor James Adams; and staff member Austin Cronen at the Biodesign Center for Health Through Microbiomes. Photo by Sabira Madady

From the gut to the brain 

Research suggests there’s a direct link between the gut microbiome and brain health. Each person has a unique network of microbiota in their intestines, a mixture of good and bad bacteria.

The baby gut’s microbiome begins during the birthing process, and then soon after with the unique set of nutrients and microorganisms in a mother’s breast milk. The microbiome changes further still depending on environment and diet as children grow into adults.

And, according to research at ASU and around the world, the health of the gut affects brain health, too.

Collaborating for answers

At the same time as James was studying possibilities in this area, so was Professor Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, director of the Biodesign Center for Health Through Microbiomes. Her microbiome work had already produced clinically significant results in other arenas. 

At that time, her past studies included a look at bariatric surgery and how it changes the microbiome, a collaborative effort with Mayo Clinic. 

“We were able to see significant differences with just a few patients,” she says. “I took our bariatric surgery paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to Dr. Adams and told him, ‘I have the people, resources and know-how to study the microbiome in kids with autism, let’s work together.’” 

So the two ASU professors teamed up, and their joint effort began with a small pilot study to see if the microbiome in kids with autism was different from their peers. 

“We found a significant number were missing beneficial microbes in the autistic population, which gave us a really good justification to do a microbiota transplant study, adding beneficial microbes to increase diversity,” she explains. 

Adams and Krajmalnik-Brown hypothesized that by using microbiota transplant therapy, many of the GI symptoms and associated behavioral symptoms of autism might improve. 

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Zoe Jay Hollie, a child with autism. She is the daughter of autism researcher Kelley Hollie. For many involved in this work at ASU, the search for treatments is personal. Photo by Sabira Madady

Significant results 

In 2017, beginning with 18 patients, Adams and Krajmalnik-Brown pretreated the participants’ guts with a specific antibiotic to rid them of harmful bacteria. Next, the participants underwent a bowel cleanse, followed by one to two days of a high dose of healthy microbiota from carefully screened donors, and finally, seven to eight weeks of daily microbiota. 

The results of the first study were impressive: Participants reported an 80% reduction in GI symptoms and initially a 23% reduction in autism symptoms, reaching nearly a 50% reduction at two years post-treatment. Their bacteria diversity increased from 25% below normal to normal initially and two years later too. 

“I realized that you could pull the weeds out of a garden, but the weeds come back. I hypothesized that we needed to pull out the weeds with antibiotics, but then  plant the garden with good

— James Adams, professor, Biodesign Center for Health Through Microbiomes

“At this point, the FDA granted us fast-track status for the treatment,” explains Adams, “and we moved on to Phase 2.”

This second phase was slated to begin in 2017 and look at 84 adults with autism. Originally a federally funded study, the pandemic intervened, delaying the research and slashing the funding. 

“We had over 1,000 families impacted by autism step up and donate to help us carry out our research,” says Adams. “We were eventually able to enroll more than 50 adult patients.”

Along with the studies with autism patients, the ASU team also studied microbiota transplant therapy for children with Pitt-Hopkins. Approximately 75% of people with Pitt-Hopkins deal with severe constipation, and about 30% suffer from gastroesophageal reflux — and many require repeat hospitalizations throughout their life. 

Because the treatment was only available in a pill form at the time of the study, just six children with the rare disorder could participate. But all six showed improvement. 

The son of Audrey Davidow Lapidus, president of the Pitt Hopkins Research Foundation, was one of the children with Pitt-Hopkins syndrome to receive the treatment. Lapidus says it was life-changing.

“In his 12 years, this was the first year my son enjoyed his birthday and Halloween as a result of not being in pain,” she says. “Other families saw improvement not only in GI symptoms, but in mood, behaviors and irritability.”

The results have been so promising that the team acquired the FDA’s orphan drug designation and rare pediatric disease designation for Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, and following a Phase 3 study, they hope to receive FDA drug approval for their treatment. 

Not only does the ASU team’s approach to the therapy stand out from predecessors because it is the first-ever treatment for Pitt-Hopkins, but also because it improves core autism symptoms. It works differently from other microbiota transplant therapy in that it first begins with antibiotic treatment, followed by a bowel cleanse, then a high dose of the transplant, then a 12-week regimen of biweekly maintenance microbiota.

To prove the case for the therapy and receive drug approval from the FDA, the ASU team needs to conduct a Phase 3 trial and has formed a new company, Gut-Brain Axis Therapeutics Inc., to raise funds for the trial. 

A healthier future

A typical day for 8-year-old Alexandra Anderson begins when her parents, Nicole and Matt, assist her out of bed. They move on to feeding Alexandra one of eight bottles, the first being a cocktail of medicine and vitamins, her most important. 

Lately, Alexandra has mastered holding her bottles independently, an exciting “inchstone” for the family. She also has taken her first steps while holding on to one of her parents.

Every inchstone in Alexandra’s life is equivalent to a milestone for other children. Born with Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, Alexandra requires around-the-clock support.

Impacting fewer than 1,500 people in the U.S., the disorder has no cure, and Alexandra spends time in a special school, plus some form of therapy five days a week. Nicole, Matt and their respective parents provide care at all other times, while also raising Alexandra’s younger sister. 

“Every little thing Alexandra does in life, she has learned to do through repetition and constant support,” says Nicole Almond Anderson, executive director, branding and communications at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. “Nothing has come easy to her, and this makes the accomplishment of her taking steps and holding her bottle so monumental to us. We never take one moment for granted, ever.”

Young girl playing with blocks

A new treatment for Pitt-Hopkins will help children like Phoenix resident Alexandra Anderson, who suffers from the rare disease. Photo by Sabira Madady

One of the most debilitating symptoms of Pitt-Hopkins syndrome is severe gastrointestinal pain — often in the form of chronic bloating and constipation that can result in hospitalizations. 

“Alexandra must take MiraLAX every day,” explains Nicole, ’04 Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication and ’09 master's degree in nonprofit studies. “She has to eat a very specific diet or she can have a severe reaction.” 

Until recently, families like the Andersons had few options. While Alexandra Anderson couldn’t be part of this phase of the study because of not meeting the age requirement and difficulty swallowing pills, Nicole is optimistic that soon Alexandra can benefit, especially since the ASU team has since developed a powder form of the treatment. 

For Nicole Anderson, the microbiota transplant therapy represents a full-circle moment and hope at its core. An ASU alum and employee since 2007, she could never have known the university she loves would be leading research with the potential to radically improve her daughter’s life. This research also drove the launch of the first-ever human trial for the Pitt Hopkins Research Foundation, where she sits as a board member.

“ASU has always been such a profound part of my life and it’s now so surreal to be witness to this exciting research and potential treatment,” she says. “Pitt-Hopkins syndrome is largely unknown — even by medical professionals — and we are working hard to change that. If we can eradicate the debilitating GI issues in these individuals, it’s a monumental step forward. 

“Now our kids have an opportunity for a brighter, happier life. I am beyond proud that ASU is the institution driving this ‘happiness’  to provide people with a better quality of life.” 

Mother interacting with child to communicate using an iPad

Alexandra uses augmentative and alternative communication to speak to her mother, Nicole Anderson, through an iPad. Many living with Pitt-Hopkins syndrome are nonverbal. Photo by Sabira Madady

Learn more at

Story by Amanda Loudin, a health journalist; her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harvard Medicine and other national media outlets.

Top photo: Phoenix resident Nicole Anderson poses with her daughter, Alexandra, who has Pitt-Hopkins. Photo by Sabira Madady

ASU Online social work program allows students to make a difference before graduating

August 24, 2023

Some students dream of making an impact after graduation, but Carl Reed didn’t want to wait.

The former music teacher based in Southern California went through a career change and decided to delve into social work to make a difference in his community. Side-by-side portraits of ASU Online students Carl Reed (left) and Katelynn Johnson. ASU Online students Carl Reed (left) and Katelynn Johnson. Download Full Image

An organization in San Diego offered him a position, under one condition: Would he be willing to work with military veterans?

The answer was a resounding "yes." This was the opportunity Reed had been waiting for.

“My dad’s a veteran,” he said. “My son-in-law is a Marine. My kids are in the Naval Sea Cadet program. I’ve been around the military my whole life even though I did not serve personally.”

Reed discovered he had a true passion for the work, but if he was going to make it his life’s work, his impact would be limited without a master’s degree.

The Master of Social Work (MSW) through ASU Online is designed to prepare students like Reed, now an alum, to advance in their careers before they graduate.

'Where the rubber hits the road'

Social work fulfills various needs, from working with an aging population to providing mental health services to managing programs designed to help people cope with problems in their everyday lives. And becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) means getting experience in a clinical setting is essential. Through field internships, students can do that without missing a beat.

Each student in the MSW program completes two field experiences as part of their coursework. These placements accumulate at least 960 hours of field internship, resulting in well-rounded experiences for future licensed social workers. 

Almost like a medical residency or law clerkship, during field placements, students are supervised alongside a social worker while supporting an issue and building their practice skills.

“Field internship is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak,” said Marcos Martinez, online program coordinator and assistant teaching professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. “This is where (students) get to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned and developed in the classroom.”

Reed found both of his field placements through Sonia, a student placement software system available to students within the program. 

Additionally, he obtained his National Provider Identifier (NPI) for Medi-Cal and Medicare billing and completed Cerner training for medical records, opening the door to completing behavioral health assessments (BHAs), triage assessments and, ultimately, therapy. 

“That’s a lot more than I expected,” Reed said. “I didn’t know I was going to get that whole level of (preparation). So basically, when I graduate, I’m already set up to work on my licensure, and while I’m doing that I could be a therapist. It’s amazing. I just love this.”

Flexibility and accessibility: A winning combination

Katelynn Johnson joined the Master of Social Work program from Cheyenne, Wyoming, after completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology at her local university. 

“I did so much better in my bachelor’s degree than I did in high school because I was so passionate about psychology,” she said. “I loved everything about it. But then when I was done, there’s not a whole lot you can do with a bachelor’s in psych. I decided social work seemed like the best option for me. I found Arizona State University, and I enrolled.”

Choosing to get her master’s degree online was an easy decision.

While working and studying full time, Johnson moved across the country — and then back. Having the flexibility of online coursework made pursuing a graduate degree manageable.

“I can’t imagine doing an in-person program and working full time,” Johnson said. “I just don’t think that would be doable at all. Online is flexible. It works with your schedule. I can do my classes when I have time and there’s no obligation to attend a lecture at a certain time. It’s just all accessible when you need it.”

While pursuing her degree, Johnson found work experiences that aligned with her career goals.

Working at a local psychiatric hospital, followed by a placement supporting young adults with their mental health, offered Johnson valuable insights and the work experience needed to prepare the alum for life after graduation.

A growing profession

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that social worker jobs will continue to grow by 9%, “faster than average for all occupations.” 

“There are more licensed social workers than there are psychologists,” said Elizabeth Lightfoot, director and Distinguished Professor of Social Policy at the School of Social Work. “People get their degree in psychology and don’t really realize that they need to essentially get their PhD to be a psychologist. The pivot often happens into a master’s of social work because it’s a two-year degree and that’s a much faster way to become a licensed clinician.”

As a licensed social worker, Johnson won’t be limited to clinical practice. The program teaches students that social work extends beyond one-on-one therapy, giving them the tools needed to address community needs on a macro-political and legislative level via grant writing, advocacy and other strategies. 

“The program has taught me that the resources across the United States are widely different, and in Wyoming, I would argue that this is the most difficult state to practice social work,” Johnson said. “I’m taking what I’ve learned in school and applying program evaluation and advocacy to really advocate for the need for more services everywhere, not just in Wyoming. So it’s just knowing now what to do about it and how to advocate for that change.”

The ability to impact lives and improve individuals’ outcomes is the fuel that keeps her — and others’ — passion for social work alive. 

“It’s rewarding; I think that’s the best word to describe it,” Johnson said. “I feel like with social work professions, in general, we know that you can get compassion fatigue or social work burnout. But when you’re doing something that you love, you leave work feeling so empowered for other people and yourself, that burnout just kind of goes away. It feels good, and it just makes me happy to be able to support people.”

Margot LaNoue

Senior Media Relations Coordinator, EdPlus

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User experience reimagined

August 24, 2023

How ASU is leveraging technology to advance learning in higher ed

User experience (UX) is a framework focused on the human experience surrounding a user’s interaction with a technology, service or business. Although ubiquitous among tech industries, 10 years ago, UX in higher education and even across the technology industry was far less common than it is today.

One of the first universities to accelerate UX within its workforce, Arizona State University has created a team solely focused on removing student friction and creating a seamless student experience. It’s only in the past few years, in big part due to lessons learned during the pandemic, that universities are prioritizing accessible and digital education.

The UX team within EdPlus at ASU, the university’s central unit supporting digital teaching and learning, has applied the premium lens of UX design to higher education, contributing to ASU’s goal to remain No. 1 in innovation.

The advancement of UX  has better aligned the university to the needs of learners, providing a mechanism to ensure every experience created is centered around the unique needs of each student.

“I don’t think the investment of design has traditionally been embedded into the framework of universities,” said Amanda Gulley, chief of UX at EdPlus at ASU. “We created one of the first design systems in higher education when design systems in the tech industry were first being introduced to scale startups or big tech firms. Because the university leans on EdPlus as an incubating unit and experts in digital learning, it allowed ASU to accelerate this work and break barriers from traditional higher education technology structures.”

EdPlus has undergone a complete transformation in which UX is a core pillar across the ASU enterprise, focused on removing student barriers and creating the best possible student experience. 

Delivering premium experiences

Embodying the charter of Arizona State University means delivering a premium learning experience, and that requires understanding and empathizing with students to uncover their needs, motivations and fears that drive their behaviors and decisions.

EdPlus leads UX for the university across more than 30 technologies and digital experiences, including ASU Online and Dreamscape Learn, as well as ASU admission applications and partnerships, such as Starbucks College Achievement Plan, Uber and ASU, Study Hall and Air University.

EdPlus has designed multidisciplinary teams across the unit that leverage UX methodologies in every technology initiative, and it has become a learner-first, data-driven unit that prioritizes the need to center all solutions around understanding who is being served and how they can be supported. 

In 2022, these student experiences have reached more than 10 million users.

“How do we think about the learner first and what is the issue that we are trying to solve?” Gulley said. “We have a lot of assumptions about what we think the issue is or what our student population wants, but how do we bring in UX early and often to iterate and experiment against these hypotheses? We have to come to the right decision and then continue to build a framework around it.”

During the beginning stages of exploring innovative ways to leverage technology, Jonathan Carroll, senior director of marketing technology at ASU Enterprise Partners, led the applied data science and technology (ADSAT) team at EdPlus.

“The applied data science and technology team enhances user experiences through user-centric technology and data science,” Caroll said. “To effectively serve individuals, organizations must know and understand their users. To achieve this on a large scale, organizations need to responsibly leverage technology that can improve user experiences based on collected data. The team at ASU facilitates the collection, enrichment, AI development, integration and activation of data to provide scalable applications and insights for various groups and organizations.”

Caroll and Gulley wanted to find ways to measure behavior across the ASU digital ecosystem. Through their collaboration, a marketing technology (martech) group was developed, and it continues to enhance ASU’s approach to UX.

Now rebranded as Data Catalytics and Action Lab (DCAL), the groundbreaking collaboration between Carroll and Gulley continues to transform the meaning of student-centered experiences. 

“DCAL is supporting the entire ASU enterprise,” Gulley said. “They’ve been able to take analytics and stitch it with other student datasets in ways that I have not seen at any other institution. This kind of sophistication is also an outcome of our partnership with Google, who are thought leaders and experts in this space. It is 100% unique to academia and, to some degree, unique in the field of technology.”

The data produced by the EdPlus data science team has accelerated a more comprehensive understanding of the university’s current and future student population and their needs, enabling UX and technology teams to focus on personalizing the student experience and designing technological support mechanisms and interventions that feel tailored to every student.

Having a data-centered culture allows EdPlus and ASU to make better decisions focused on understanding who ASU is serving, evaluating current experiences, and predicting and testing where the university needs to go in the future.

“Embracing the constant evolution of data-driven design is crucial for higher education institutions,” Carroll said. “To stay ahead, it is essential to establish a clear and comprehensive data strategy that isn't tied to any specific technology platform. This strategy must be all-encompassing, including student information systems, learning management systems, customer relationship management systems, web, martech and more. By taking proactive measures early on, institutions can benefit within an often unpredictable industry.”

Research-based experiences

Composed of various squads, EdPlus uses a variety of robust data-informed approaches to inform how ASU understands and engages with learners. Researchers, designers, engineers, data scientists, product, marketing, UX writers and operational teams, including more than 40 students and fellows, work together to create insights and testing frameworks to launch technologies across a multitude of interdisciplinary projects. 

Whether on websites, across platforms or through extended reality, UX enhances every learner interaction by connecting with audiences and eliminating points of friction. That call to innovate has resulted in new ways of engaging prospective students, new programs enhancing student learning and, ultimately, new paradigms for UX in higher education.

But EdPlus doesn’t stop there.

Leveraging UX requires delving into the student experience — exploring why a student is not thriving and focusing on mechanisms to improve the personal and educational barriers preventing them from succeeding.

Applying UX research practices allows the team to discover who they serve and how to best support them. It’s understanding the audience in order to design paths that not only guide students where they intend to go but also where they need to go.

“What makes us unique is a few things,” Gulley said. “One of them being we have a very robust approach to how we understand the student experience, and that is a data-informed approach, leveraging mixed methods.”

In 2022, the UX research team interviewed, surveyed or user-tested more than 3,300 prospective and current students to help guide future decisions around the student experience.

“We’re thinking not just how students engage with our content and the tools we create, but understanding their mental models and decisions that lead to personalized, omnichannel support mechanisms, uncovering new barriers we can solve for what we didn’t know before,” Gulley said.

Diving into those big UX questions begins with identifying the students. Today, more than ever, the snapshot of the typical college student defies description. With ASU’s large and diverse student population, providing a unique and personalized student experience is essential.

For Madison Delaney, lead UX researcher at EdPlus, it boiled down to establishing the core types of prospective learners ASU is trying to reach — an effort among UX research students and product managers to create a handful of “personas,” or profiles, encapsulating the most common characteristics among learners.

Identifying these personas through a UX lens meant including high-level demographics, like an age range and location, whether they have dependents, and what types of stressors might exist in their life outside of school. 

“That's really the goal of this persona work,” Delaney said. “It’s getting at the core of who the learners and students are, who we're talking to and who we're creating these digital experiences for.”

The persona of a community college transfer student has different motivations, concerns and responsibilities from the persona of a full-time professional returning to college after 20 or 30 years in the workforce. Yet both personas attend ASU, and they’re not the only ones. 

Beyond the innovation and prestige of the university, creating experiences that speak directly to learners — and meet them where they are — is the goal.

The focus is on each student, their story and their success.

“It’s not just ‘ASU is great and you should come to us,’ but ‘Here’s how ASU is going to help you achieve your goals,’” Delaney said. “We want to show every learner what we have available to them and how we’re going to help them succeed regardless of their personal journey.”

UX design has allowed ASU to deliver tomorrow’s higher ed today.

Understanding the deep problems each technology is trying to solve and bringing in the student voice and human psychology principles into the design of the solution will elevate how universities serve students and advance success for all.

“UX may have started six years ago as a team, but it’s now a culture and a way of thinking,” Gulley said. “The thread of UX is in every role across the organization (and) advocates for those we serve. It is deeply connected to our charter. It’s no longer the responsibility of some, but embedded into the fabric of what makes ASU and ASU Online a differentiated experience from any other university.”

Margot LaNoue contributed to this article.

Meenah Rincon

Public Relations Manager , ASU Online

Elevating student learning through data-driven insights

How ASU Online’s Success Coaches are using data dashboards to support online students

August 24, 2023

The fall 2023 semester at Arizona State University is underway and already one for the books, with the university projecting over 144,000 enrolled students to engage in learning on campus and online.

Topping the charts with over 65,000 students registered through ASU Online, such a large class comes with a diverse set of learners’ needs that must be supported to ensure academic success. One student sits in front of a computer with another student behind them smiling. Two ASU students work together on a school assignment, tapping into the data-driven resources backed by the Success Coaches. ASU photo Download Full Image

Enter ASU’s Success Coaches, who play a vital role in supporting students throughout their time at the university, helping them better manage their time and stress, offering assistance with exploring career and professional paths, providing resources and more. 

To do so, Success Coaches leverage academic data dashboards — built and managed by developers on the data and analysis team at ASU Enterprise Technology — to foster meaningful relationships with online students using real-time data. This data-informed, personalized approach is a factor in improving retention and graduation rates to prepare students of all backgrounds for life beyond the university. 

“Many of our online students are first-generation learners, people who maybe have not had that intentional, personalized academic support before,” said Cassie Bozin, a Success Coach lead with EdPlus at ASU. “They might not know how to use a planner and break it down, and that's where our coaches come in to provide that support — because the data is telling us that each learner needs a specific type of support to reach their goals.”

Success Coaches juggle hundreds of students simultaneously. Their leadership team equips them with key data about each student’s performance, allowing data to guide the coaches’ outreach efforts. They communicate most frequently with students at risk of failing or dropping out, offering targeted help ranging from access to student services to assistance with agenda planning and goal setting. Meanwhile, students who are on track academically receive check-ins, ensuring they remain on course, but receive less intensive communication, allowing coaches to focus on those in greater need.

A cornerstone of their methodology is effective communication, a process initiated during the pivotal transition as students enroll in their first year at ASU. Using a collaborative approach, team leads work with analytics teams to track thousands of degree-seeking, online students as they advance through their courses, providing the data that Success Coaches need to tailor support for students as their academic paths unfold.

“The data is so important to support our charter and our connections with the learners,” said Bozin. “These are learners who need us, and if we're not managing the cases, from a data perspective, we're not managing those connections.”

Using data from platforms such as Canvas, ASU's student-facing dashboard, the color-coordinated data dashboards serve as a critical alert system for Success Coaches.

For Success Coaches, these dashboards will signal a possible course withdrawal if a student starts missing classes or neglects assignments. The alert will prompt the coach to connect with the student to provide personalized support.

“Our approach involves using data trends and student behaviors to identify opportunities for outreach and intervention,” said Nicolette Miller, senior director of student success initiatives at ASU. “Understanding that this work is not done in a vacuum, our coaches try to take a proactive approach equipped with the necessary context to provide the right support — rather than reactively handling cases as they come in.”

This comprehensive support strategy takes into account key elements, such as graduation timelines and goal setting with students, which lays the foundational groundwork for their academic path to success.

“Identifying trends, such as recurring issues or broken links in class materials that negatively affect student success and cause frustration, is crucial to being proactive,” said Daniela Moreno Diaz, Success Coach lead at ASU Online. “When we spot such patterns, our approach is to address them before they escalate into more significant problems.”

Equipped with data underlying their communication strategies, Success Coaches assist in guiding students to a range of services that extend beyond the classroom. These resources may include counseling services or child care assistance, making each student feel part of the ASU community while acknowledging their distinct, multifaceted needs.

“We don't shy away from challenges — instead, we analyze them, creating tailored, strategically realistic plans for students to succeed,” said Bozin. “The power of our work lies in its personalization, honing into each student's unique needs as revealed by the data.”

Behind the tech

Every day, ASU leverages data-informed insights about its people, environments and products to create a foundation to work, learn and thrive. To do so, a team of data analysts at Enterprise Technology have created hundreds of data dashboards to provide near-real-time insights to teams and units across the enterprise. In addition to the data dashboards provided to Success Coaches, these include daily enrollment reports for the university registrar, reports on financial aid disbursements, graduation rates and statistics on faculty and employees by college or campus, to name a few. 

Using tools like Tableau, thousands of reports are shared to ensure analysts at ASU have the data they need to make the best choices to support students.

Kevin Pirehpour

Editorial Specialist, Enterprise Technology

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Can policy get smart enough for artificial intelligence?

August 23, 2023

3 ASU experts give their take on AI policy solutions

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a two-part series about the ways that AI, including large language models like ChatGPT, impacts society and how ASU researchers are addressing its oportunities and challenges. Read more: Arizona State University experts explore national security risks of ChatGPT

Artificial intelligence offers enormous potential for good. For example, the Beatles used AI technology to extract the musicians’ voices from an old demo cassette and produce a new song. And a new AI tool called AlphaFold boosted medical science by predicting the structures of nearly 200 million proteins.

But AI is also prone to bias, misrepresenting existing data and giving answers out of context. Chatbots, also called large language models, have put these issues in the spotlight. Users of ChatGPT, Google’s Bard and similar programs have encountered AI “hallucinations,” when the chatbot invents a convincing fake data source to answer a question. One investigative journalist found that when pressed, Microsoft Bing’s AI chatbot created a devious alter ego.

RELATED: What are the differences between all the chatbots on the market today?

Faced with AI’s immense power for good or bad, lawmakers and even AI developers are scrambling for policy solutions. Tech leaders across the nation wrote an open letter urging a six-month pause in AI development — a period ending next month — to establish safety standards. The Federal Trade Commission began investigating OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, to assess consumer harm.

Additionally, the European Union is seeking to pass the Artificial Intelligence Act, which could pave the way for global AI regulations. On the home front, the White House published a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights” that protects U.S. citizens from harm caused by AI, including privacy breaches, discrimination and unauthorized use of original works.

But is traditional policy the best way to handle AI’s capabilities? How do different work industries incorporate AI fairly? What does an ethical AI environment even look like?

To find out, we spoke to three experts from Arizona State University’s Global Security InitiativeJamie Winterton, senior director of research strategy; Raghu Santanam, affiliate researcher and a professor and McCord Chair of Business in the W. P. Carey School of Business; and Mickey Mancenido, affiliate researcher and assistant professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences.

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

“I think, if we're going to be pragmatic, the thing to do is figure out a reasonably global, agile, soft law approach.”

— Jamie Winterton, Global Security Initiative senior director of research strategy

Question: Is it worth it to stop AI development as some have suggested and set up policy, or should we work on both at the same time?

Winterton: I think we will have to figure out how to do them at the same time, because these technologies are always moving forward, and the ways that people use these technologies are always changing as well. So now we're in the position of having to come up with flexible and fast-moving policy. Policy is neither.

I think, if we're going to be pragmatic, the thing to do is figure out a reasonably global, agile, soft law approach. Instead of saying, “Let's put together these laws about it,” let's work with international organizations and gather coalitions to create standards. If enough big companies come together and agree to work by a particular bill of rights or framework, it adds pressure for others to get on board. Let’s use that collaborative agreement and social pressure to govern the development and use of some of these technologies.

Gary Marchant in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law has said that our law is struggling to keep up with the last iteration of technological developments, let alone where tech is right now. We should be thinking about more creative ways to get the societal outcomes that we're hoping for, and not just say, “Congress will pass a law.”

Q: What are some top-priority concerns to address through regulation and guidance?

Winterton: I think the biggest one is, what can it be used for and what should it be used or not used for? My colleague, Joshua Garland, recently testified to the New Mexico state legislature, and he recommended that AI-generated imagery and text shouldn't be used in political ads. I think that's a great specific recommendation.

It's very hard to tell what's been faked and what is legitimate, so efforts on watermarking or having some way to tell what's true from fake is maybe the biggest issue that we're facing, with implications for mis- and disinformation and for democracy generally.

My other concern is literacy around these models. What are they good for and not good for? AI and large language models are very confident. They'll give you an answer immediately that sounds great. But ChatGPT can be very misleading. Working with a large language model can be very useful and effective. But there are certain things it will not be able to do well. We need general literacy for people in different sectors to know how to use it so it will help them and not lead them astray.

There's also a big cybersecurity aspect that runs through the center of this. We're having large language models recommend things to us. How do we make sure they haven't been tampered with by some adversary? That's one area that would be good to keep in our research and development.

RELATED: ASU researcher bridges security and AI

Q: How can we advocate for good AI policy or soft law approaches?

Winterton: We often think of tech development as being its own thing, but technology is fundamentally social and political. If we're talking about how these technologies and algorithms might impact different groups of people, it brings the conversation back to what it's being used for. Academia is a great way to drive it forward because we have the neutral middle ground. We can bring this perspective to our research design, to the conversations that we have with our transition partners in government and industry.

“Any new technology, especially general-purpose technology like AI, does disrupt existing roles. But it also creates new roles.”

— Raghu Santanam, affiliate researcher, Global Security Inititative; professor and McCord Chair of Business, W. P. Carey School of Business

Q: Considering the Hollywood writer strike and other debates around how AI could automate some job tasks, should different industries create policies for AI use and job security?

Santanam: As much as it is a job security question, it is also about having just compensation for intellectual contributions. When you start using these large language models, you're essentially leveraging all the past creative works to make something new, or at least that appears new. The debate is about whether creative content usage in large language models is ethical and legal. And if content that's not open source is used, how do we create a just compensation model for the original content creators?

If you think about media that streams on Netflix or Amazon, royalty payments indirectly do accrue to original creators in most cases. So some type of a royalty model may eventually be possible for generative AI usage. At least going forward, compensation structures may get defined in the original agreements with content creators for generative AI usage.

Beyond that, whether AI replaces you or makes you more productive are two separate questions. It's happened before in society. Any new technology, especially general-purpose technology like AI, does disrupt existing roles. But it also creates new roles. How fast that adjustment period is can determine how disruptive it is for specific occupations.

RELATED: Duplicating talent: The threat of AI in Hollywood

Q: There's a lot of nervousness surrounding this. Is there a better framework to use when we think about AI and how it will affect our jobs or society in general?

Santanam: A lot of freelance content creators are already seeing business dwindle. If you're asking what might happen in the future, I would guess that it is going to make most knowledge workers more productive. This has happened before with e-commerce and web 2.0 — those technologies made service and knowledge work more productive, but they also created new job roles. A role like search optimization did not exist before Google came out with their search engine. But at the same time, the internet disrupted the newspaper industry beyond anyone’s expectations.

Although many content creators may see dilution of opportunities, some professionals will be able to leverage new opportunities. For instance, those who are really good at prompt engineering will be sought after. That's also an upskilling opportunity. If you imbibe this new skill into your role, and you're able to utilize ChatGPT-like services to your benefit, you're going to be a more valued knowledge worker in your organization.

RELATED: New ChatGPT course at ASU gives students a competitive edge

Q: Since people want fair compensation for their work, how do we determine whether something is truly someone's work, versus purely AI-generated content or a blend of the two?

Santanam: That value determination happens in the marketplace. It is likely that end consumers will value original human work and therefore continue to drive higher value for human-generated content. But if consumers perceive high value in hybrid content, then it might actually create a lot of difficulty for those who say, “I'm only going to do original work.”

We can see the market’s role in value determination in several established markets, where products that are advertised as handmade or one of a kind have high valuations. We could also see such differentiation with Broadway shows versus movies in theaters. It will be interesting to watch how markets determine the relative values placed on consuming content that's original and human made, content that's hybrid, and content that is actually purely AI generated.

Now my hypothesis is that the AI-generated content, simply because of its scalability, is going to be priced lower. At the same time, exquisite human creations could actually garner an even bigger difference in value over AI-generated works.

RELATED: The state of artificial creativity

Q: When deciding things like what AI should be used for, or what data should be used to train AI, are these questions that are better answered through the marketplace and company to company? Or is AI so transformative that we should have policy addressing it in some way?

Santanam: I think it should happen at both levels. In one sense, the scope of AI technology’s impact could be similar to nuclear technology. In most cases, you don't know who's had a hand in developing generative AI systems. But if the system gets implemented widely, one small defect could cause humongous damage across the globe. That's where I think there is need for regulation. When you're using algorithms to make decisions for autonomous vehicles, facial recognition, housing and business loans, or health care, we need clear regulatory frameworks that govern their usage.  

For corporate or marketplace policy, you could start thinking about the ethical frameworks that are important to avoid disparities in outcomes and make sure that the benefits accrue equitably to all stakeholders. It is also important to ensure that ethical boundaries for content usage are as clearly outlined as possible. When there is a broad agreement on the ethical framework for creation and usage of generative AI, it becomes easier for pricing, distribution and business model innovations to take place.

Q: What industries could really benefit from using AI as a tool, and what should they consider before doing so?

Santanam: I think a lot about health care and how generative AI might or might not disrupt the health care industry, or for that matter any industry that directly impacts human life. What are the policies and governance mechanisms that we’ll need to put in place so that we do not end up worsening disparities or putting human lives at risk?

The financial industry already uses AI extensively, but it definitely is a context where there is opportunity for biases to creep into business practices. For example, when you make decisions on loans, there are concerns about what data you're utilizing and how decision-making is delegated between humans and AI. More importantly, deep learning networks are black boxes, so you need to start thinking about how to build more transparency in data usage, decision processes and delegation mechanisms.

Finally, AI also provides a way to scale education. There's already some work going on in terms of providing office hour mentoring and tutoring. Grading also is ripe for automation, at least partially.

In all these industries, common concerns include the underlying data and the biases inherent in them, the inadequate organizational control and process oversight to ensure fairness and equity, and the lack of frameworks for ethical decision-making and policies for due process.

“As human beings, we have our baseline definition of ethics and morality, but an organization’s mandate defines what it perceives as ethical in a specific context.”

— Mickey Mancenido, affiliate researcher, Global Security Initiative; assistant professor, School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences

Q: Large language models are fed lots of data, which affects how they answer questions. Who decides where that training data comes from, and is there a way to limit AI to ethically sourced data?

Mancenido: That's highly dependent on the developers of the algorithms. In the case of ChatGPT, that would be OpenAI. My understanding of how they acquire large amounts of training data is that they scrape this from the internet, including news websites, blogs, Reddit, Twitter. Do they have ethical practices in place to ensure that the data is well represented and that the civil liberties of private citizens are not being infringed upon? I have no way of knowing that. Most AI companies do not share their training data. And if you ask ChatGPT to give you a description of the data that it's being trained on, it's just going to say, “I am an AI language model; I don't have access to my training information.”

Q: Do you think there will be a move to have federal oversight of that in the future?

Mancenido: It's a little different from other technologies. Let's say back in the 1950s, they were regulating the safety of vehicles. In that case, your technology has discrete components, and you know exactly how each affects the overall system with respect to safety and reliability. But in the case of AI, there are too many moving parts. I believe that even the developers most of the time have no idea how every single component and parameter affects the prediction or the interface. So, I don't know what that regulation will look like. I can imagine that it's going to be a very difficult thing to police, just because anyone with a computer can scrape data from the internet and train a model.

Q: There are many conversations around ensuring that an AI model’s data source is ethical. But how would we define ethical data?

Mancenido: Ethics really is context- and organization-dependent. For example, I work a lot in the public service domain, such as the Department of Homeland Security. Every organization has a mandate. The mandate of the TSA is to ensure that passengers are safe during air travel. That’s a different mandate from, let's say, the Department of Commerce.

In the context of the TSA mandate, if you’re deploying AI for facial recognition at airport security, would you err on the side of a false match or a false mismatch? Which error is going to be less impactful for your organization and for the traveling public? AI systems are very good at situations they’ve been trained on, but not so much on edge cases, which is where I think humans still have superiority. As human beings, we have our baseline definition of ethics and morality, but an organization’s mandate defines what it perceives as ethical in a specific context.

Q: When thinking about facial recognition, is that biometric data protected by law?

Mancenido: It depends on which country you're in. The USA puts a lot of importance on the rights and civil liberties of private citizens. If you go to a security checkpoint, and they have this technology, you will see a display that says that they only keep the images for 12 hours, after which they’re deleted from the system. That's one of the safeguards that they have. And they don't use your photos in training their models. Among public-serving organizations, that's pretty much the status quo.

Now, when you think about other countries where the privacy of ordinary citizens is considered very lightly or not at all, then I would say that yes, they do use private citizen data to train their models. That's why some countries have AI models that are being deployed in spaces where it would be unthinkable to do so in the U.S. Here in this country, there are a lot more regulations when it comes to privacy, and that should make us sleep better at night. I prefer that.

Q: How can we safeguard society while allowing for innovation that benefits society?

Mancenido: That's a very difficult question. In this country, I believe that we need better privacy-preserving laws. I think the top research funding priority should be privacy preservation, because that's balancing between optimal AI performance and possibly infringing on citizens' rights when it comes to providing your AI technologies with as much data as possible. I think that's the key if you ask me how to balance safety and innovation.

I'm also really an advocate for public education. With AI, we want people to know enough that they can make informed decisions. But at the same time, we don't want them to be too overwhelmed, because it can get very overwhelming very fast. Educating our congress members and the people who make the decisions, I think that's the tricky part here. Can we make them understand enough to make sound decisions about the extent of AI regulation? Most researchers, in my opinion, need to keep in mind, “How do I make my research more accessible, in such a way that a regular layman can understand it?”

RELATED: ASU Lincoln Center to launch course on human impacts of AI

ASU’s Global Security Initiative is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF). TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new start-up companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Top graphic by Alec Lund/ASU

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU alum combines sustainability leadership with law enforcement

August 22, 2023

W. Troy Weisler believes stability is key for a thriving society.

As the New Mexico State Police chief and an Arizona State University Master of Sustainability Leadership (MSL) alum, he notes that environmental, criminal or health factors could threaten that stability. Portrait of Chief W. Troy Weisler in uniform. Chief W. Troy Weisler, ASU Master of Sustainability Leadership alum. Download Full Image

Government, Weisler says, plays a key role in providing that stable foundation by protecting its citizens from those interrelated threats.

“The same individuals most susceptible to harm from environmental or health challenges are often the same members of society most likely to be harmed by crime,” he said.

“Being able to identify how those systems interact and determine the best path forward to prevent future harm and create a stable, sustainable environment for people to thrive is what MSL and the School of Sustainability is all about.”

Considering what his career would be like post law enforcement, Weisler contemplated returning to school. He was interested in finding a program that would allow him to continue to serve the public, but in a different manner.

While researching environmental science-related degrees, Weisler stumbled upon ASU’s School of Sustainability and its online Master of Sustainability Leadership.

“I knew that was the one for me,” he said. “It is applicable to almost everything, which is its biggest benefit, and I knew that ASU was the original home for that particular field of study.”

He quickly realized that the curriculum would not only prepare him for his next career but would also be applicable to his current work in law enforcement given its focus on understanding systems and being future-minded.

“The criminal justice system is a very complex system, so being able to look at that from a more holistic point of view is very beneficial,” Weisler said.

“It is also a profession that needs to maintain sustainable relationships with the communities we serve, which I think has allowed me to explore more of the social applications for the main concepts in sustainability.”

The program allowed Weisler the opportunity to look at sustainability’s role in government from a new perspective. He considered not only how agencies within government work together but also how they interact with the systems they are a part of. In having a more holistic view, they can be forward looking, and identify challenges before they fully develop.

“In today’s law enforcement I think the sustainability mentality is critically important because we increasingly need multifaceted and nuanced responses to deal with public safety problems that are complex and dynamic in nature,” Weisler said.

“If we want to deal with the root causes of problems, we cannot have tunnel vision in our outlook or be siloed in the work we do.”

The coursework inspired Weisler to keep a running log of ways he could implement class readings into his current role — one of which led to him creating the Innovation Bureau at the State Police.  

The Master in Sustainable Leadership Program not only inspired new ideas for Weisler but also the advancement of skills.

Through EMS 524: Sustainability Storytelling and Communication, Weisler explored the power of effective communications that leads to a compelling call to action.

“The least favorite part of my new job is the public speaking, but because of EMS 524, I have a much better understanding of how to format and explain topics in a way that engages the audience.”

During his time in the program, Weisler also had the opportunity to learn outside of his coursework. He participated in the Frasier Global Mentorship Program, attended a GreenBiz conference and worked as a development intern with GreenLight Solutions. For his culminating experience, he worked in a group that created a sustainability plan for the Phoenix Country Day School.

Weisler says he utilizes what he learned in the Master of Sustainable Leadership program daily in his role as chief for the New Mexico State Police, whether that be analyzing the efficiency of their vehicle fleet, creating long-term strategic plans or simply communicating with officers around the state.

“I find myself using MSL concepts to identify why problems are occurring both within my agency as well as within our overall criminal justice system and then looking at ways to address those problems.”

“Government can often be siloed and overly focused on process instead of progress,” Weisler said. “The MSL program has helped me become much more forward-thinking and aware of the interconnectedness of all things in modern-day society.”

Balancing a full-time career and a master’s program required a strong support system, organization and determination. The degree being online allowed Weisler the flexibility to dedicate weekends and early mornings to schoolwork. 

The effort is worth it according to Weisler, who says the program teaches you less about what to think, but rather how to think. The comprehensive approach, he adds, would aid any field in analyzing and addressing complex problems.

“It can bring value to any career.”

Matt Oxford

Assistant Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications, College of Global Futures


A garden of innovation: Mayo Clinic, ASU seed grant to fund medical discoveries

August 22, 2023

Endometriosis diagnostics. Tumor detection. Blood-based biomarkers. Bone repair. 

These are just a handful of the medical solutions Arizona State University researchers and Mayo Clinic doctors aim to explore through an innovative funding opportunity concentrated on collaboration between physicians and academics. A man and a woman work in a medical research lab Sixteen pilot studies will be explored through the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University Alliance for Health Care Seed Grant Program — the largest amount since the program’s inception in 2016. Image courtesy Shutterstock Download Full Image

The Mayo Clinic and ASU Alliance for Health Care Seed Grant Program empowers investigators from both institutions to kickstart joint research projects and build a foundation to attract additional funding. The program also provides researchers with the unique advantage of finding solutions for complex biomedical problems that might not have been solved otherwise.

“When you try to take the most complex problem and solve it, at the same time you end up solving a lot of simpler problems more effectively,” says Neal Woodbury, chief science and technology officer at ASU Knowledge Enterprise.

When awarding grants, the program considers projects that encompass the following factors: transforming the health care workforce, optimizing health and the human body, and establishing connected health care delivery and biomedical innovation. Among these key elements, the project should demonstrate meaningful collaboration between investigators at ASU and Mayo Clinic.

“We want this to be, more than anything, a catalyst — a spark that continues to foster our collaborative efforts,” says Rafael Fonseca, chief innovation officer at Mayo Clinic. 

The 2023 seed grant projects and its lead investigators are:

Automating data extraction from electronic health records and reasoning to assist treatment decision-making for prostate cancer

Chitta Baral, professor, ASU School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence
Dr. Irbaz Bin Riaz, oncologist, Mayo Clinic

Machine Learning Design to Predict and Manage Postprandial Hyperglycemia in Patients with Type 1 Diabetes

Hassan Ghasemzadeh, associate professor, ASU College of Health Solutions
Dr. Bithika Thompson, endocrinologist, Mayo Clinic

Characterizing health care provider and patient experiences with implementing genomic medicine in a federally qualified health center

Rachel Gur-Arie, assistant professor, ASU Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation
Richard Sharp, biomedical ethics, Mayo Clinic

The use of itaconate as an immunometabolite for improved bone repair 

Julianne Holloway, assistant professor, ASU School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy; associate faculty, Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics
Jennifer Westendorf, orthopedic surgery consultant, Mayo Clinic

A Holistic Approach for Improved Diagnosis and Management of BRCA Mutations in Breast Cancer Using Advanced -omics and Imaging Technologies

Ashif Iquebal, assistant professor, ASU School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence
Dr. Bhavika Patel, breast imaging radiologist, Mayo Clinic

Evolutionary Therapy to Enhance Management of Gastrointestinal Malignancies

Carlo Maley, professor, ASU School of Life Sciences; associate professor, Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society
Dr. Ryan Carr, oncologist, Mayo Clinic

Extracorporeal Robotic Tissue Retraction with Endoscopic Resection of Complex Gastrointestinal Neoplasms

Hamidreza Marvi, associate professor, ASU School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy
Dr. Terry Jue, gastroenterologist, Mayo Clinic

A Biomimetic and Organotypic Model of Brain Tumor-CAR-T Cell Interactions

Mehdi Nikkhah, associate professor, ASU School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering; assistant professor, Biodesign Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics
Gloria Kim, immunologist, Mayo Clinic

Quantitative Gait Analysis as a novel diagnostic tool and clinical biomarker for Atypical Parkinsonian Syndromes

Daniel Peterson, associate professor, ASU College of Health Solutions
Dr. Shyamal Mehta, neurologist, Mayo Clinic

Detection and quantification of key biomarkers in CAR T-cell therapy with Quantum-NanoElectroPore (Q-NEP)

Quan Qing, associate professor, ASU Department of Physics; faculty member, Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors
Dr. Januario Castro, oncologist, Mayo Clinic

Conductivity Tensor Imaging to characterize the neuronal mechanisms of brain invasion in High-Grade Glioma (HGG)

Rosalind Sadleir, associate professor, ASU School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering
Dr. Leland Hu, neuroradiologist, Mayo Clinic

3D Printing-enabled Regenerative Medicine for Pelvic Organ Prolapse (POP) Treatment

Xiangfan Chen, assistant professor, ASU School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks
Jessica Lancaster, immunology consultant, Mayo Clinic

Engineering targeted strategies to diagnose and treat endometriosis

Jessica Weaver, assistant professor, ASU School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering
Dr. Megan N. Wasson, gynecologic surgeon, Mayo Clinic

Investigation of mechanisms of muscle atrophy and weakness post-ACL injury and reconstruction

Jeanne Wilson-Rawls, associate professor, ASU School of Life Sciences
Dr. Kostas Econompoulos, orthopedic surgeon, Mayo Clinic

Cardiac Amyloidosis, The Crucial Need for Blood-based Biomarkers for Early Disease Detection

Craig Woods, director of research projects, Infectious Disease, Institute for Future Health
Dr. Julie Rosenthal, cardiologist, Mayo Clinic

Adaptive Self-Supervised Contrastive Learning for Tumor Detection and Treatment Evaluation

Yingzhen Yang, assistant professor, ASU School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence
Dr. Alvin C. Silva, radiologist, Mayo Clinic

Written by Sophia Balasubramanian

National Endowment for the Humanities recognizes ASU team for humanities research

The Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics team conducted interviews with TikTok creators for social media algorithm research

August 22, 2023

In the first-ever round of grants awarded for the National Endowment for the Humanities' Dangers and Opportunities of Technology program, a project team at the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics was recognized for its humanities research on social media algorithms.

The award is part of more than $41.3 million in grant awards the National Endowment for the Humanities has announced to support 280 humanities projects across the U.S. A screenshot of a zoom panel with four feminine-presenting Black individuals. Clockwise from top left: Amelia Som, Bobbi Miller, Dani Lalonders and Kenidra R. Woods during a Lincoln Center "Experiences on TikTok: Black Creators" panel that took in 2022. Download Full Image

The project directors — Sarah Florini, associate director; Liz Grumbach, manager of digital humanities and research; and Erica O’Neil, research program manager — are collaborating with the Online Content Creators’ Association to conduct interviews with creators on TikTok.

“It’s hard to overstate how impressive and important this collaborative work is for our ongoing research at Lincoln, and for scholarship on the ethics of technology more broadly,” said Gaymon Bennett, director of the Lincoln Center.

The team’s interest in TikTok originated in early 2020, when Florini and Grumbach became intrigued by how the TikTok algorithm seemed especially effective at sorting users into/out of solidarity networks. Building on this curiosity, Florini and Grumbach initiated a series of collaborations with the Online Content Creators’ Association over the past two years, including a series of panels hosted by the Lincoln Center last year that focused on the experiences of marginalized content creators.

“Content creators, especially those from historically underrepresented communities, deeply feel the impacts of algorithmic rules and norms from content curation and opaquely defined moderation, as we’ve seen from users like Ziggi Tyler,” Grumbach said. “Especially on TikTok, but also other social media platforms, it’s often the creators that reveal the inner workings of the algorithmic black box, and they do so through experiential knowledge.”

Their collaborators from the Online Content Creators’ Association, who have been a part of the project since 2021, are a creator-led advocacy group with the goal of improving labor conditions for online content creators, and represent more than 700 TikTok users. T.X. Watson, longtime collaborator on the project and a creator of educational content on TikTok, will join the team as the primary researcher from the association.

Florini, Grumbach and O’Neil aim to combine users’ experiences and folk theories about the platform’s algorithm with academic research and analysis.

“Many creators are actively engaged in ad hoc research to understand and make sense of algorithmic content curation and moderation," said Florini, who is also an associate professor of film and media studies in the Department of English. "We not only want to record what content creators know, but how they come to know it. What are their strategies for investigating the platforms they use?”

“This project is important because it takes community-based understandings of algorithms as a starting point for co-creating a shared vocabulary across university-community partnerships,” Grumbach said. “We hope that it will serve as a model for future ethical and care-based collaborations with social media creators and users.”

The award from NEH will propel their ongoing project into 2024, with work beginning in earnest in October 2023. The Lincoln Center is one of only two groups at ASU recognized in this round of NEH award announcements.

“We believe that collaborative research that includes people with a variety of expertise, both inside and outside academia, is the most powerful way to understand the social media platforms that are increasingly shaping our society," Florini said. "We are grateful to the NEH for recognizing the potential of this research and supporting our work.”

Karina Fitzgerald

Communications program coordinator , Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics