UCLA’s ACM AI Podcast Addresses AI and Diversity, Featuring Guests from Underrepresented Communities

ACM AI podcast

ACM AI team meeting

Feb 10, 2021

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

From dispelling myths about artificial intelligence to promoting the field with prospective students, the podcast “You Belong in All!” has much to offer to its listeners.

Created by ACM AI Outreach, the podcast interviews UCLA faculty, community activists and industry leaders, exploring topics such as fairness in AI, algorithm biases and diversity representation within the field.

The computing club is part of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), which is the world’s largest scientific and educational society for computing. ACM at UCLA is the biggest computer science student organization both on campus and in Southern California.

In an effort to increase access to the field of AI, ACM at UCLA members strive to reach students in underrepresented communities, addressing barriers that can make it difficult for the youth to pursue an undergraduate STEM education.

“If anyone should be receiving an AI education right now, it’s those who are in underserved communities,” said Arjun Subramonian, a computer science senior at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and director of ACM AI Outreach 2020-2021. “It’s the underrepresented people who are often neglected when AI models are deployed.”

In April 2020, ACM at UCLA pivoted to online content due to COVID-19. The club created the podcast, as well as other virtual offerings, to maintain connections with its members and widen its reach to engage with younger students interested in STEM.

The team goes through an extensive networking process to identify potential guests with personal experience from the underrepresented communities. Club members rely on LinkedIn, recommendations from UCLA faculty and past ACM speakers to source their guest list. Before recording a show, the group spends time researching topics suitable to the speaker and compiles a list of relevant questions for the interview.

“We strive to make the recording process as efficient as possible for [our] guests who spend a lot of time and energy educating the community on issues of diversity,” Subramonian explained.

Postproduction is a labor of love when podcast editor Jason Jewik is tasked with transforming the interview segments into an episode ready to air. A second-year computer science major and an outreach officer for the club, Jewik stitches sound together with audio clips and adds finishing touches to the program. This process can take at least double the amount of time the host took to record the interview.

With its open, friendly and educational approach, the podcast aligns its content with the interest of its target audience.

Current club members take turns hosting the podcast and incorporate their personal style into the conversations. The podcast’s first season focused on the history of AI and how the industry grapples with issues of bias and inclusion. Guests on the show explored how social norms have led to certain populations more inclined to study AI and machine learning than others.

“If you look at the trend, computer science and programming used to be a woman-dominated field. That ratio has declined over the last three to four decades due in part to how toys were marketed to children,” Shweta Kushu, senior engineer at wind energy company SkySpecs explained in one of the episodes, “Back in the ‘80s, when commercial computing became more popular, it was advertised as toys for boys. The toys became successful in marketing that gender bias, and that bias circled back to the industry.”

Guests also shared different ways to design more inclusive and diverse AI.

“The presence of bias needs to be a part of the questions you ask when you are working to design any model that involves people,” said Jordan Harrod, a doctoral student in Harvard-MIT’s Division of Health Sciences and Technology program. “I’d love to see individuality be a larger part of the development pipeline.”

Other first-season guests included Jennifer LaPlante, executive director of AI software company DeepSense and Carey Nachenberg, an adjunct associate professor at UCLA Samueli and a software engineer at Lyft.

As the podcast entered its second season in January 2021, the program zoomed in on guests’ childhood experiences and factors that led to their interest in AI and machine learning.

Its first episode featured Paco Guzmán, a research scientist manager at Facebook AI, who shared his nonlinear career path and offered advice to students. “It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what you want to be later in life,” he said. “Listen to what you like and take all the advantages and opportunities that come your way.”

“You Belong in AI!” can be accessed through Anchor, Spotify and other podcast resources. For more information about their programs, one can email ACM AI Outreach at acmteachla@gmail.com or ucla.acm.ai@gmail.com.

Zoe Curran contributed to this story.

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