Can AI alleviate ‘wicked’ world problems?

Math professor illuminates the role of artificial intelligence in pandemics, poverty and gender disparity

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by Amy Crockett (’10)

At the JMU X-Labs, professors Hala Nelson (left) and Seán McCarthy co-teach (with Bernie Kaussler) Hacking for Diplomacy, an interdisciplinary, problem-solving course supported by the Colleges of Arts and Letters and Science and Mathematics. Photograph by Steve Aderton (’19)

SUMMARY: Hala Nelson, associate professor of mathematics, believes AI can serve the public good — if smart and effective design policies are developed.

As a child, Hala Nelson lost her hair in a missile explosion and survived the Lebanese Civil War while landmines lurked underfoot. Experiencing the dark side of humanity at a young age shaped her interest in human behavior and the nature of intelligence. Nelson also developed a passion for mathematics. Her father taught her math at home until she graduated from high school, practicing problems with her from a thick book written in French. “It was ingrained in me from my father that I have a ‘clean brain,’” she said. According to him, math was “the one clean science.”

From 2002-05, Nelson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, but she felt this foundation had little to do with real life and her career goals. “I knew that if I stayed on the path of algebra and abstractness, I would never be able to use my brain to solve worldwide problems,” said Nelson, now an associate professor of mathematics at JMU. The nature of conflict, and how humans use their resources, thoughts and emotions, still fascinated her.

Inset: Hala Nelson's family. Associated Press photo of Beirut during Lebanese Civil War
Hotels in Beirut, Lebanon, during the first phase of the Lebanese Civil War, Dec. 15, 1975; (inset): Hala Nelson with her Lebanese father and siblings, c. 1984
Beirut photograph by the Associated Press; family photograph courtesy of Hala Nelson

Her soul-searching guided her pursuit of a doctorate in mathematics from New York University and postdoctoral teaching and research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, but discontentment lingered. She yearned to use mathematical modeling to address a specific problem and make an immediate impact. Further exploration opened Nelson’s eyes to the worlds of data science, machine learning and AI — effectively striking a balance between math and the humanities.

She soon felt called to build a bridge between the two realms, and to educate others on the benefits of AI. Before she could teach the curriculum to JMU students and assign the text, she needed to produce the subject matter. Nelson’s first book, Essential Math for AI: Next-Level Mathematics for Efficient and Successful AI Systemsunifies and grounds AI in math.

This past winter, through the Center for Global Engagement, Nelson shared her expertise abroad at an international student conference in Bandung, Indonesia, leading a workshop on “A New World With COVID: Can AI Help?”

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a lot of weaknesses in the global supply chain of very essential resources,” she said. “AI can assist with these logistics and in the field of operations research. 

AI can also help directly model the spread of disease, Nelson said, taking into account more factors and data than previous models and predictions. “Maybe the whole population doesn’t have to sit at home and be isolated,” she said. “The whole economy does not have to stop, and then the next 10 years we’re trying to recover from that because everybody had to be locked down.”

In January 2023, Hala Nelson was invited to participate in an international student conference, Inclusivity and Accessibility to Welfare and Sustainable Living After the Pandemic, in Bandung, Indonesia. Nelson held a workshop on “A New World With Covid: Can AI Help?
Photograph courtesy of Hala Nelson

A global pandemic is an example of a wicked problem — a phrase coined by design theorists in the 1970s. “Wicked problems are phenomena that are so complex that it’s hard to even define them and almost impossible to solve them,” said Seán McCarthy, professor of writing, rhetoric and technical communication and director of the Cohen Center for the Humanities. “It’s a term that helps us think about problems beyond a simple cause-and-solution sort of scenario, where these problems are constantly changing. It’s hard to get a handle on what they are; they’re slippery.” 

Nelson said COVID-19 illuminated another wicked problem — poverty. Lower income people were the most affected by the virus, in sickness, access to vaccines and job losses. AI has a useful role in combining locational and human information to more precisely pinpoint vulnerable groups, she said.

To further support less advantaged populations, AI holds the potential to increase access to education when demand for teachers is high. In agriculture, AI has the capability to examine crops and find new species of plants that grow in different soils. To protect crops and avoid hunger, the technology can also simulate weather patterns to forecast an incoming cold front. “If you give people access to better health, education and food, AI can facilitate all of this and counteract the effects of poverty,” Nelson said.

When studying the wicked problem of gender inequality through the lens of AI, Nelson said the most important factor is the quality of the data. If the data entered into an algorithm is gendered, it can affect whether a person receives a loan or a job. “We have to be careful that we don’t reduce our whole humanity into walking, talking vectors that we feed into algorithms that make decisions based on numbers or scores documented by data companies,” she explained. “If our data is correctly represented and clean of biases, then AI will help remove gender disparities, because then decisions will be really based on qualifications.”

In the male-dominated fields of math and science, Nelson is closing the gender gap. She credits her father for her aspirations and accomplishments. “I never thought that I could not do it, or I never felt like I needed to prove myself to anyone,” she said. “He did me the favor of confidence.”

This semester, alongside political science professor Bernie Kaussler, Nelson and McCarthy are co-teaching Hacking for Diplomacy. The innovative course challenges student teams to solve specific problems posed by U.S. government agencies related to business, logistics, technology or human resources. The class takes an interdisciplinary approach, mixing social science, communication and math.

“I’m lucky that I get to do this program with really smart professors who are really good teachers and are able to work on highly complex problems that the next generation of leaders who we are teaching will need to know how to solve,” McCarthy said. “Hala is amazing at inspiring students to take their theoretical and technical understanding of mathematical concepts and apply them to the real world.”

Nelson is working on her next book, Foundations of AI and Data, which is set to release in 2025. In the preface, she writes, “The challenges facing humanity are the same as ever: sustainable energy, food supply, clean water, access to education and health care, security and defense, and climate change.”

She estimates that climate change is the biggest dilemma. However, the difference in analyzing climate change today compared to past decades is that now more than 8 billion people live in an interconnected, global society. AI has the computational power to address and model a wicked problem of this scale.

“We’re not going to scare people and say we’re all going to die in 2035, right? We’re not gonna do that,” Nelson said. “Countries can sit down now and look at their data — this is exactly how much resources we have, and this is what we can do with them.”

Nelson maintains a bright outlook on harnessing AI to serve the public good — if smart and effective design policies are developed.

“Every jump in human society has happened when humans were able to automate a process,” she said. “The more advanced we become, the more problems we’re able to solve and the more we’re able to help people and elevate their standard of living.


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Published: Monday, October 23, 2023

Last Updated: Friday, November 17, 2023

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