UC Berkeley community talks sustainability, equality, artificial intelligence at town hall

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Campus community members gathered in the Sibley Auditorium on Monday to discuss signature initiatives regarding sustainability, equality and artificial intelligence at a town hall sponsored by the UC Berkeley Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

The campus’s current strategic plan is divided into six areas: environmental change, equality and equity, artificial intelligence and its effect on the public good, inclusivity in research, improved health and well-being, and the future of democracy. The Monday town hall focused on the first three of these themes. Vice Provost for Academic Planning Lisa Alvarez-Cohen and Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz guided the creation of six working groups that will each tackle one of the six initiatives.

The working groups commenced after the six topics were identified as goals in spring 2018. The campus will strive to make progress within these themes over the next five to 10 years, according to an email from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

“These initiatives are about research, curriculum, community; they are about all of us coming together,” Alvarez-Cohen said at the town hall. “It’s been really interesting hearing the working groups as they’ve come up with crosscutting initiatives.”

Campus agriculture and resource economics associate professor Meredith Fowlie co-chairs the working group tackling the environmental initiative alongside Mark Stacey, a campus civil and environmental engineering professor. The working group has centered its efforts on understanding climate change and corresponding mitigation and adaptation efforts, according to the co-chairs. The group will also focus on the energy transition away from fossil fuels and climate policy innovation. Stacey added that the group will plan around the fact that mitigation and adaptation efforts often exacerbate existing inequalities.

UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy professor Hilary Hoynes and associate professor Rucker Johnson presented their working group’s progress in tackling the initiative regarding inequality, which Hoynes described as “the defining issue of our time.” The group will work to address challenges around equitable growth in society, transformative justice and equal opportunity across racial lines.

“These issues have incredible importance, and it would be limiting to have (solutions) stay here at UC Berkeley,” Hoynes said at the event. “We want to propose solutions that address root causes rather than symptoms.”

Hoynes also acknowledged a potential partnership between her working group and the working group centered on inclusivity in artificial intelligence, or AI, advancements.

Campus industrial engineering and operations research professor Ken Goldberg co-chairs the AI working group and said at the town hall that he sees it as “synergistically related to the other five initiatives.” He added that the working group is striving toward AI integration that respects human values.

“We are actually thinking broadly and inclusively in who needs to participate in figuring out what the problems are (with AI) and how to solve them,” said UC Berkeley School of Information associate professor and Goldberg’s co-chair Deirdre Mulligan at the event.

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research will host a second town hall to discuss the remaining initiatives in the Sibley Auditorium on April 23.

Rachel Barber is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.