Zimmer to develop Responsible AI course

Part of Dr. Zimmer's research into digital privacy and subjectivity includes minimizing his online photo footprint.

On June 20, UC Santa Cruz associate professor of literature Zac Zimmer will join 14 of his colleagues from universities and colleges around the U.S. at the National Humanities Center (NHC) to discuss and develop undergraduate courses to help ready students to better understand the impact of artificial intelligence on our world. 

Dubbed the Responsible Artificial Intelligence Curriculum Design Project, the inaugural program, funded in part by a gift from Google, was created in response to a conference held last spring at the NHC which dug into the areas where the humanities and artificial intelligence merge, such as the use of AI technologies in the creation of art, the ethics of using facial recognition in surveillance and police work, and whether or not it’s possible to build morality into machine learning. 

UC Santa Cruz was just one of dozens of schools who took part in a competitive grant process that would allow them to be part of this prestigious program. With support from Dean of Humanities Jasmine Alinder, Zimmer put forth a proposal built from his research into comparative studies of technology with a focus on Latin America — work that touches on similar issues concerning the use of AI. 

“I’m interested in the connections between subjectivity and privacy in digital and online settings,” Zimmer said, “but also historicizing the changes that we’re living through right now — connecting it to specific historical events. My training in Latin American literature and cultural studies focusing on the colonial period led me to see that the rhetoric of newness in technology has blinded us to analogous issues that have played out historically. We can learn a lot from studying those examples in a comparative framework.” 

"Professor Zimmer is an innovative teacher and scholar,” Alinder said. “His humanistic approach to the study of technology is exemplary and is aligned with the Humanities Division's goal to provide courses and degrees that foster critical thinking about social and cultural systems."

The development of this new Responsible AI course is part of a larger initiative at UC Santa Cruz to help share resources and make connections between engineering students and those studying the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Earlier this year, it was announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded a grant to UC Santa Cruz to create a Certificate in the Humanities that would introduce students enrolled in the Baskin School of Engineering to humanities disciplines. Dean Alinder is the PI on the project and Zimmer is also part of the team helping develop that program, which will be launched in the next school year. 

A new curriculum focused on artificial intelligence is coming along at an ideal moment as it has become a fixture in the world at large. In addition to front-facing uses as chatbots on retail websites or in apps to help fix grammar and spelling mistakes, the technology has spread far and wide into nearly every major industry in ways that are much harder to see on the surface. 

One example of how artificial intelligence is being used behind the scenes is of particular interest to Zimmer. He’s recently been exploring the use of training set data in the development of machine learning algorithms. 

“The training sets are the initial data that a machine learning algorithm ‘reads’ as it learns how to do its assigned task,” Zimmer said. “As it turns out, training data sets are hard to come by, and as a result, are quite valuable. One of the most famous publicly available training sets is the Enron corpus: half a million emails exchanged between Enron employees as that scandal-ridden corporation lurched towards collapse in December of 2001. My research explores the implications of a generation of algorithms trained on data sets like this federally subpoenaed mash of fraudulent activity and banal corporate pleasantries.” 

Zimmer already has some strong ideas in mind about potential ideas for the course that he will be mapping out this month at NHC, but he’s mostly excited at the prospect of being able to further develop them with the help of his colleagues and to help share the impact of their work on students when they reconvene at the Center in 2024. 

“It’s going to be a collaborative experience,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to learning from other people’s perspectives. The idea is that each of us is going to come out of the institute with a designed course. Each fellow is going to have their own course design but we’re going to share resources and work on things together and talk through things together.”