As businesses, schools and the entertainment and creative industries grapple with the disruptive consequences of artificial intelligence, Cal Poly Pomona student teams explored its silver lining: opportunities to use the self-learning technology for social good.
The university, along with San Jose State University and CSU San Bernardino, are engaged in AI for Social Good (AI4SG), a $600,000 hands-on, three-year education project funded by the National Science Foundation. Its impact on participating students will be analyzed by CSU Long Beach. The project addresses two critical areas: developing the AI knowledge and literacy skills of the next generation of the STEM workforce, while tackling the shortcomings of current AI education – lack of diversity, shortage of broad multidisciplinary participation, and an overemphasis on technical concepts.
AI4SG aims to introduce something irreplicable by algorithm: humanity.
“The goal for AI4SG is to show that we can empower our students to be gamechangers in AI – this big, scary, new technology, and use it to promote their communities,” said Geography Assistant Professor Gabriel Granco, one of the four CSU faculty who developed the project. “So, the positive effects take place when the people designing the AI have positive goals. Then, AI becomes an incredible technology to bring information together and find new ways to solve issues that before would be considered unsolvable or that only a few people would have access.”
Participating students majoring in information systems, geography and computer science at each university were asked to identify social problems, learn AI concepts and applications in AI labs, and develop AI-powered solutions. The nine most promising prototypes and proposals were presented in May at the first CSU AI for Social Good Undergraduate Innovation Symposium.
This year, students can participate in AI4SG in Granco’s fall 2023 Climate Change (GEO 3070) course, where they will develop AI-powered solutions to address climate change in their communities, and again in his Environmental Modeling with GIS (GEO 4450) class in spring 2024 — with the chance to have their work showcased in the 2nd CSU AI for Social Good Undergraduate Innovation Symposium.
“By training students on AI, they can go on to have new opportunities in areas that they would never think of before,” Granco said.
In spring 2023, Granco’s Environmental Modeling with GIS (GEO 4450) served as the hatchery for these potential opportunities. Throughout the semester, his students received and completed training on IBM Watson Assistant, a conversational artificial intelligence platform. After identifying one way to support their communities, student groups tied their topics to one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, then developed chatbots to interact with specific populations.
Three of the 10 projects in Granco’s class advanced to the CSU AI for Social Good Undergraduate Innovation Symposium:
- Zero Hunger (UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger)
- FontanaEnviroBot (UN Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being)
- Pomona Trashbot (UN Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production)
The Zero Hunger team drew from personal experiences with food insecurity. Geography seniors Ernesto Alvarado, Monica Torres and Maya Carillo, and Eryn Diaz (‘23) designed a chatbot to make food resources and easier to access for destitute communities in Riverside County. Alvardo developed the Zero Hunger chatbot, designed to connect users to government resources, locations of establishments that accept SNAP, EBT and WIC benefits and information on healthy eating on a tight budget.
“This experience is connected to our majors in diverse ways, whether it’s geography, business, or health,” Alvarado said. “We can use this experience to learn more about how we can help our communities not just in food insecurity, but in learning about how our community experiences and reacts to real problems like this.”
Pomona Trashbot took inspiration from real-life developments. Athens Services took over recycling, organics and waste collection for Pomona businesses and residences on July 1 – and SB 1383 (California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy), which mandates keeping organic waste out of landfills and disposal of food scraps in green waste bins. Starting in January, those violating the law will face fines.
Pomona Trashbot was designed as a hypothetical feature on the Athens Services website to perform three main functions: inform customers of materials for each color-coded trash bin, resources to reduce residents’ environmental footprint, and information on other services like scheduling bulk item pick-ups.
“I never expected that I would be building a chatbot in a GIS [geographic information system] class,” said senior Sophie Whitaker. ”But the aspect of geography that I’m focusing on for my major is the environment, and it’s my personal goal to end up in a job where I can help repair the damage that humanity has done to it. Because of this, I wanted to create a chatbot that would have a positive impact on both people and the environment, and I’m glad I got to do that by creating Pomona TrashBot.”
Pomona Public Works expressed interested in a demo of the chatbot, said team member Ryan Lutz (’23, geography). The project bridged the geospatial emphasis in his major studies with his minor in regenerative studies.
“It’s the perfect combination of these two topics,” Lutz said. “Geography with the zone and tie it to a database. It’s data science with a spatial aspect. How can a bot automatize a response? In my mind it’s an easy enough subject if you have the right data. With the [regenerative studies] component, how do we reduce trash, how to we prevent recyclables becoming trash? These are the mechanics of the problems we see in America on a grand scale.”