WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Technology is often presented as an objective tool to increase personal and enterprise efficiency. However, innovations in technology can have unintended consequences on our society. With new technological advancements announced with increasing frequency, how can their impacts be better predicted? The Purdue University Honors College welcomed students to participate in its inaugural Solutions Lab and attempt to answer that pressing question. Teams representing four Honors College houses, including Copper, Palladium, Platinum, and Titanium, unveiled their solutions at a competition in Honors Hall on Saturday, February 23. Austin Barrow, Emma Rogers, Layan Yunis, Mansoorah Kermani, and Mili Jha represented Platinum House as the winning team.
Students were tasked with answering the questions, “How might we better anticipate the impact of technologies on society? What changes should we make when it comes to how we research, develop, design, and/or implement technologies for a better future?” An additional challenge is that, 48-hours before the unveiling, students received a prompt asking them to design a campaign to raise awareness about their solution among Purdue undergraduate students. Their presentations on Saturday required answers to the original question as well as their marketing strategy. The winning team received an $800 award, 800 house points, and collected the Solutions Lab trophy.
The Platinum House team elected to use an interdisciplinary tech conference format to both better anticipate the effects of technology as well as to raise awareness in the Purdue student body. “We started with this idea largely because this is how all of us have seen ideas and solutions presented in real life, and especially at Purdue thus far,” said Honors College student and Platinum Team member Mili Jha. “The more we deliberated the idea, the more we realized a conference with exciting guest speakers and activities that had prize awards would be engaging for a community of college students.”
“The idea of creating a single event that addressed automation as a whole and how it can be improved seemed very feasible but not as impactful or engaging as we wanted,” added Platinum member Layan Yunis. “We decided to expand that social function into a series of functions, each of which emphasized a different subject within the range of automation as listed earlier.”
Their conference proposal, titled “Purdue TechnoTank” focused on the growing trend of automation and deep learning algorithms across various fields and explored how Artificial Intelligence can unintentionally lessen equality in various human populations. “Our organization proposes that the root of this issue is the kinds of data we feed AI, and that we can provide it ‘better data’ by diversifying our sources of data, requiring a longer testing period for new technology, and implement technology on a micro-level before moving onto the macro-level,” Jha explained.
Additionally, the conference includes both a writing competition and a hackathon as ways to encourage viewpoints from students representing a wide-variety of disciplines. “The purpose of this conference was to provide undergraduate students with enough information to create their own solution, either through a Hackathon or writing contest,” said Platinum member Mansoorah Kermani. “The Hackathon was meant to be geared towards students with a more stem-related major and the writing contest towards liberal-arts majors.”
Faculty consultation provided jump-starts for competing teams as they began searching for solutions. Dr. Megha Anwer, Dr. Kris Bross, Dr. Zahra Tehrani, Dr. Adam Watkins, and Dr. Lindsay Weinberg each offered their expertise during meetings with Team Platinum. This process not only provided assistance for teams searching for ways to focus a solution to a high-level question, but also encouraged valuable interaction between students and Honors College professors.
“I acquired and developed some terrific relationships with my peers and distinguished faculty that I know will continue to serve me beyond just the Solutions Lab program,” said Platinum Yunis. “Furthermore, the Platinum Team is invited to participate in Purdue’s Dawn or Doom conference this upcoming Fall, which is a very exciting opportunity!”
Recounting her experience, Jha cited the personal growth achieved organically throughout the process. “By encouraging myself and my team to set up appointments with faculty, have crucial discussions on topics important to us, and even attend discussions led by acclaimed researchers and scientists, I definitely gained more knowledge on ideas tangential to our work,” she stated.
The Solutions Lab also aimed to present students with a real-world scenario to solve. “My favorite part of the experience was definitely the opportunity to work on a real problem in society,” said Emma Rogers of the Platinum team. “So many times, in our classes or on social media, we are told of problems in the world, of afflictions in society. The Solutions Lab gave me a chance to think critically about how I can impact the world, how I can work towards making it a better place.”
“Every single person and every single group had a completely different interpretation of the prompt, showing just how varied ideas can be,” Rogers observed. “If we can put all of our brains together to collectively search for a solution, there is going to be progress made.”
The Solutions Lab also encouraged students to experience new schools of thought. “All of our team members put in hours outside of our weekly meetings not only to conduct independent research, but also to have discussions with esteemed faculty in specialized fields and to attend fascinating What IF? lectures on campus,” Jha stated. “I really appreciate that being part of the Solutions Lab encouraged me to make an effort to keep learning outside of my classes, and to do so in ways that challenged my mindset and educated me on relevant topics that do not always arise in classroom discussions.”
This collaboration helped generate a creative solution to raising awareness about technology’s impact on society. “We had to deal with the fact that we all came from different disciplines, which made us think differently about how to approach finding a solution,” Kermani stated. “This created confusion among us at first, but once we all came upon the idea of creating a club that hosted a tech conference, everything started going smoothly. We could all agree that it was a good idea and could incorporate our perspectives smoothly.”
The Honors College plans to offer the Solutions Lab during each academic year. For a detailed explanation of this year’s challenge, visit the Solutions Lab website.