Northwestern launches research hub for AI safety, equity

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From facial recognition to autonomous vehicles, the adoption of artificial intelligence-driven applications has exploded so quickly that it has outpaced efforts to understand how these machine-learning technologies affect human life.

To help examine artificial intelligence (AI) systems and evaluate their impact, Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and Northwestern University today announced the creation of a research hub that seeks to better incorporate safety and equity into the fast-growing technology. 

The Digital Intelligence Safety Research Institute (DISRI) at Underwriters Laboratories will support the research collaboration, committing $7 million to the research hub over the next three years as well as expertise and resources. Northwestern will host, and the two institutions will jointly lead, the research and operations of the new hub, the Center for Advancing Safety of Machine Intelligence (CASMI). The DISRI-CASMI partnership aims to bring together and coordinate a wide-ranging research network focused on maximizing machine learning’s benefits while recognizing and averting potential negative effects.

Machine learning is among the most transformational forces in technology today, but we’re only beginning as a society to genuinely understand and evaluate how it affects our lives.

Kristian Hammond
CASMI director

“Artificial intelligence informed by machine learning is increasingly ubiquitous in our everyday lives,” said Christopher J. Cramer, Underwriters Laboratories chief research officer and acting DISRI executive director. “It’s imperative we get it right. We must develop approaches and tests that will incorporate equity into machine learning and hold it to standards guided by both safety and ethical considerations. I’m terrifically excited about this partnership, which will foster research aimed at integrating safety into machine-learning and artificial intelligence design, development, and testing processes.”

The CASMI research hub extends a partnership that Northwestern University and Underwriters Laboratories began in 2020 to map the extent of machine learning’s current and potential impacts on human health and safety. Both organizations will build on that exploratory work as they refine a new framework to evaluate the impact of artificial intelligence technologies and devise new ways to responsibly design and develop these technologies.

“Machine learning is among the most transformational forces in technology today, but we’re only beginning as a society to genuinely understand and evaluate how it affects our lives,” said Kristian Hammond, CASMI executive director and Northwestern’s Bill and Cathy Osborn professor of computer science. “Our partnership with Underwriters Laboratories will help us establish the clear understanding we need to develop these technologies safely and responsibly. Our goal is to go beyond platitudes and operationalize what it means for these technologies to be safe as they are used in the world.”

Together, Underwriters Laboratories and Northwestern University will promote and coordinate multiple areas of research related to machine learning and artificial intelligence. The “distributed research” model that CASMI will follow also calls for widely sharing ideas and research outcomes that address the human impact of machine learning.

hammond AI

Kristian Hammond

“This kind of collaborative research is vital as we address the complex challenges posed by machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Underwriters Laboratories President and CEO Terrence R. Brady said. “Given our organization’s long history of holistic, multidisciplinary safety science, we are exceptionally well positioned to generate and support this kind of research and knowledge sharing.”

By developing connections and collaborations across multiple institutions and with researchers from different disciplines and backgrounds, the Northwestern-Underwriters Laboratories initiative will establish a research network capable of yielding results unlikely to be achieved by any one group in isolation. CASMI will leverage Northwestern’s network and Underwriters Laboratories’ position as a global safety science leader to help bring together the field’s leading minds in support of the research hub’s multidisciplinary research approach.

“Underwriters Laboratories has been a longtime leader in advancing the safety of technologies that impact our everyday lives,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering. “We are delighted to partner with them to advance the safe and ethical use of machine learning and artificial intelligence as these technologies continue to impact our society.”

By the end of its first year, the Underwriters Laboratories-Northwestern collaboration aims to have funded and started sharing the results from an initial set of mission-driven research projects. The partnership will continue to expand its research initiatives during the hub’s second and third years, while also exploring opportunities to connect the research network with industry partners.

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