Harnessing Ethical AI to Connect and Strengthen Communities Q&A with Chelsea Collier, UT Austin

Chelsea Collier has spent her career exploring innovative ways to spark connection and collaboration for the good of all. Her years of work in the areas of strategic communications, economic and workforce development, and social impact ultimately led to her founding Digi.City, a nonprofit organization that amplifies the voices of diverse community members to collectively design "smart(er) cities and more connected communities." Working on that platform helped Collier recognize the potential power of ethical artificial intelligence to create high-impact, data-informed, community-building tools. Now, as part of The University of Texas at Austin’s National Research Traineeship program, Collier is exploring how to harness the power of AI to boost equity, support stronger communities, and build a better world via public engagement. She is enrolled in UT's PhD in Information Studies program in the School of Information.

Chelsea Collier, NRT trainee at UT Austin


Talk about some of the research you’re involved in right now at UT.

I am part of the research team for smart hand tools, one of six core research projects of the Good Systems initiative, a UT Grand Challenge. The research focuses on using ethical AI to co-design AI-based tools with skilled trade workers. Our research is about supporting workers, not replacing them, which is a practical application of AI for good.

This project is an interdisciplinary effort that combines the work of social scientists, computer scientists and mechanical engineers. By collaborating with our partners — the City of Austin and Austin Community College — we’ve been able to gather data and insights from welding students still in training and from workers and supervisors from five different city departments, including Parks and Recreation and the Austin airport. We are conducting qualitative research to understand the nature of skilled trade work, asking questions such as what tools are essential to your work? How are your needs being met, or not met, in the workplace? What are your thoughts about technology? Could technology be used to improve your workplace experience?

It's still early in the research process, but respondents are largely saying that technology could absolutely help support their work on a variety of levels — from training to safety to knowledge transfer and more. They’re not actually afraid of AI taking their jobs. In fact, one respondent said that there’s no way a robot could do his job but that it would be game changing if it could help hold a drill more safely or indicate when a tool or battery needed replacing. The worker was more concerned about his knowledge of the job being lost upon his retirement than his position becoming obsolete. We want to support workers like this. The project is really beautiful work that’s about building upon the positive aspects of AI to build a better society. I’m so grateful to be a part of it.

What role does academia and research play in the development of ethical AI?

I think the role of academia is critical, and I'm not sure that story is being told as well as it could be. When it comes to leveraging AI technology, everyone has a role to play, including innovators in the private sector — whether global corporate or startups — and federal and local government. Academia delivers deep subject matter expertise through scholarships. Researchers can provide insight into determining how we can ethically collect data to improve the infrastructure in our municipalities, rural areas and across states. They have a crucial role to play in terms of creating data governance principles that ensure the safety and privacy of everyone involved — from the technology companies that are trying to innovate in this space to the citizens and residents for whom the technology's implications may not be clear.

For AI to be ethical, the U.S. desperately needs stronger data governance protocols at the federal, state and local levels. The longer we wait to take on that challenge, the more difficult it will be to use AI in ways that are meaningful to society, while also mitigating its risks. That’s where the academic perspective is vital.

How does the NRT program specifically support your work?

Academia can be a challenging environment to navigate; it has its own language, its own systems, its own power structures. So having mentorship and support through my advisor Ken Fleischmann, professor and director of undergraduate studies at UT, has been so meaningful, both from his subject matter expertise and his ability to guide students through the academic system. He also ensures I’m able to build connections with people across disciplines. The NRT program is also helpful in creating those connections.

For example, I took a class at UT on human-centered robotics. The only reason I could be admitted into that class was because of the NRT framework. That class brought together social scientists like me with engineering students with very different backgrounds, including computer science and mechanical engineering. Building those bridges is very much a strategy of NRT. That class was such a lovely exchange of perspectives and viewpoints, and everyone benefited.

You’re hoping to bring some of your NRT work to SXSW — tell us about it!

I've been a part of the SXSW community for a long time, and we’re so lucky that it's right here in Austin in our own backyard. It’s incredible to have people coming from all over the world, and I’ve loved tapping into that powerful global network.

Our proposed workshop is about bridging the work we’re doing in NRT with ethical AI and my previous work in Smart City development to explore new ways to boost civic engagement and participation. This summer, I was doing a fellowship in Hamburg, Germany, with the City Science Lab, which is affiliated with MIT. Their team is doing exciting work around participatory design and urban co-design. Our workshop at SXSW will highlight those methods alongside Junfeng Jiao’s, NRT program director at UT smart cities work. We want to invite people to co-create their ideal version of a city using these two kinds of research modalities. We tested the process with great success last year, and we’re so excited to introduce this more fully at SXSW.

What are you looking forward to in this second year of NRT?

My hope is just for more collaboration and more time with researchers from parallel disciplines. I would like to get a better understanding about what excites them and on the future direction of their research. When those collaborations start and the sparks fly, that's the magic of it. At the end of the day, it's not about the program, it's about the people. But having NRT as a framework makes those connections and relationships possible.