New project uses empathy to teach students about cybersecurity and AI ethics

Yang Wang
Yang Wang, Associate Professor
Yun Huang
Yun Huang, Associate Professor and Interim BSIS and BSIS+DS Program Director

While empathy is important in almost every aspect of daily life, it is not always a priority in the development of technology, especially technology using artificial intelligence (AI). iSchool researchers are working to address this gap by using empathy to teach high school students about cybersecurity and AI ethics issues. Led by Associate Professor Yang Wang, the project, "Teaching High School Students about Cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence Ethics via Empathy-Driven Hands-On Projects," has received a two-year, $297,575 National Science Foundation (NSF) Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER). Assistant Professor Yun Huang; Pilyoung Kim, associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver; and Tom Yeh, associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, will serve as co-principal investigators.

"We have seen many AI technologies that are fraught with ethical issues, for instance, having implicit biases toward certain populations or treating them unfairly," said Wang. "If we want tomorrow's AI technologies to be ethical, we need to plant the seed today and educate the future AI designers now."

According to Wang, developers are under a lot of pressure to ship products quickly, so ethics and empathy tend to get sidelined or ignored. In addition, "developers probably didn't get empathy-driven education when they were in school."

"Our project makes an initial step towards changing that," he said.

For their project, the researchers will develop hands-on labs that cover a variety of scenarios, such as online gaming, social media, mobile apps, and smart toys. The labs, which will be made publicly available for schools to use, will include real-life examples of young children who are interacting with unethical AI or exposed to cybersecurity risks. Using a cutting-edge non-invasive neuro-imaging technique, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), the researchers will be able to assess the impact of these labs on the activation of brain regions associated with empathy in high school students.

"We hope the hands-on labs we develop in this project are effective and will be adopted widely in teaching high school students about AI and cybersecurity ethics issues," said Wang. "And that students will have more empathy for others, especially those who are vulnerable and can be disproportionately affected by these emerging technologies."

Wang conducts research focusing on usable privacy and security technologies, social computing, human-computer interaction, and explainable artificial intelligence. He earned his PhD in information and computer science from the University of California, Irvine.

Huang's research areas include social computing, human-computer interaction, mobile computing, and crowdsourcing. She received her PhD in information and computer science from the University of California, Irvine.