Alex Liu is a senior in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. He also recently founded the Science and Computing Club (SoCo). The student organization aims to bring together students from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and beyond to discuss current, pressing issues like political polarization on social media, technology addiction, and algorithmic bias.
Where are you from?
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
My dad got me into coding when I was young. Plus, the grade school that I went to was very STEM-oriented so that also inspired me to pursue engineering.
What do you like most about engineering at UB?
I enjoy how research-oriented the professors are, and how open they are to working with undergraduates. Some of the projects I've helped out with and heard about have been really rewarding and interesting.
What motivated you to start the Society and Computing Club?
For a good part of my undergraduate career I've been interested in computer science topics like algorithms, machine learning, and big data. Aside from a few ethics-related assignments in my CS classes, most of my understanding of the negative effects of these industries has come from science fiction, be it AI ruling the world or algorithms that determine future-criminals before they become them (I've only understood recently that this is indeed happening in real life).
Watching the documentary The Social Dilemma changed all that. Not only did I begin to learn how real and pervasive the effects of computing on society were, but I also noticed how much it affected my own life. Seeing scenes in the documentary like getting sucked down a YouTube rabbit hole, worrying about your image on social media, and feeling the addictive urge to check your cell phone were especially powerful because I have personally experienced all of these behaviors. The biggest gut punch was when I realized that the academic interests I mentioned – algorithms, machine learning, big data – were the very technologies that enabled these behaviors. This is the reason why I started the Society and Computing Club: As an engineer, to learn how I can create technologies responsibly and ethically in my future career; As a citizen, to understand the effects of computing on democracy, mental health, privacy, and other aspects of society.
What are the goals of Society and Computing?
Society and Computing (SoCo) does not claim to have the answers to the problems that we discuss, such as political polarization on social media, technology addiction, and algorithmic bias. Rather, our main goal is just to start a conversation around these problems among the student population. And to fully respect the breadth and depth of these problems, we will need as diverse a body of people as possible involved in this conversation. That's why another one of my goals for this club is to be interdisciplinary, both in terms of the student body, but also in terms of the faculty speakers we bring in. The final goal is to promote research projects related to society and computing that faculty are performing around campus.
Is there anything particularly exciting that your organization is doing?
Yes! For our inaugural event, we will be discussing the documentary The Social Dilemma. We're also really excited about our upcoming speaker series, starting in March. We anticipate having UB professors in philosophy, communications, and computer science talk about their research and work related to society and computing. Some topics include AI ethics, political speech on social media, and machine learning in society.
What are you working on right now?
I'm working on getting the word of this club out to students. We currently have lots of interest from within the CSE department, but there is a lot more outreach to be done within SEAS as a whole, and also outside SEAS. Besides that, we're working to recruit more faculty to come join our speaker series!
What are you passionate about?
I'm passionate about learning from a diverse array of fields, not just that of my major. Many of the questions we want to ask in this club cannot be solved by computer science and engineering alone. We need to examine these problems from all different academic angles, and I want to prepare myself for that.
Has there been a particular faculty member that has been formative during your time at UB?
Professor Atri Rudra has been instrumental in my development as a student and researcher. I took his introductory algorithms class a few years back and really enjoyed it. After that class, I did (and still am doing) theoretical computer science research with him. It was during our research meetings that the idea for SoCo was seeded, and he was instrumental in helping me get this club up and running. Through this process we discovered our mutual interest in society and computing related topics, and he was able to introduce me to many other faculty members that helped the club's start in one way or another. In all these settings, Atri has been honest, insightful, and overall a great person to talk to. It's been awesome getting to know him over my undergraduate career!
What are your future plans?
Right now my plan is to pursue a PhD after I graduate. Hopefully I will be able to do research that is relevant to SoCo, as that is my primary interest.
What is your advice for prospective students?
My main advice to prospective students is to challenge yourself to be as interdisciplinary of a student as possible. This could mean taking as many classes as possible outside of your major, getting involved in interdisciplinary clubs, or adding a minor or a second major (finances and time permitting).
Personally, I've really enjoyed taking non-STEM courses not because I don't enjoy STEM, but because doing so has actually enhanced my experience as a STEM major. First, I believe that doing so directly improves your skills within your own major. As an example, my experience reading court case arguments in law class has made me much better at writing proofs for theoretical computer science courses and research. Second, you will be introduced to all sorts of cool and new academic fields. This happened to me after I took an economics class, when I discovered the wonderful world of game theory sitting at the intersection of economics and computer science. Most importantly, stepping outside your academic comfort zone is a great way of introducing yourself to fresh ways of thinking and looking at the world, while sharpening your own critical thinking skills.