Contributing to the Public Good

President Tripathi.

Over the summer, the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing on artificial intelligence technology used to create doctored videos that appear strikingly real. These so-called “deepfake videos” – generated with computer software that can clone voices, mimic speech patterns and superimpose audio or video over an existing source –  topple the notion “seeing is believing” while literally putting words in people’s mouths.

As a computer scientist and a concerned citizen, I was curious to learn what the hearing would reveal about these videos’ potential to undermine next year’s elections – and, more broadly, national security. As UB president, I was especially keen to hear the insights of David Doermann, director of our Artificial Intelligence Institute and one of four national experts that Congress invited to assess the menace of this emerging cyber-weapon.

Professor Doermann’s cogent analysis was one of the more recent, but one of many, examples of the critical contributions that our UB faculty members make to the public conversation, for the public good. It demonstrates our faculty’s deep engagement with the world – and how deeply their scholarship matters to the world. Every day, our faculty extend their disciplinary expertise beyond the walls of the academy to advance the narrative on relevant contemporary issues, shape policy and solve vexing problems.

And yet, society has yet to shake the myth of the ivory tower. We’re all familiar with this well-worn metaphor– the intellectual ensconced within his or her office, apart from the concerns of daily life. The reality is anything but. Whether offering proven strategies to discourage school bullying, testifying at asylum hearings for victims of trauma and torture, assessing the effects of climate change on public health in the national media, or developing clinical treatment guidelines that improve patient care, our faculty stand at the center of the dialogue, promoting reason and evidence-based knowledge in a world too often splintered by disinformation.

From UB’s beginning, this type of public engagement and service has been a key guiding principle. Today, it seems, it is needed more than ever.

Consider deepfake videos. Although the technology behind them has been leveraged to wonderful creative effect – think Hollywood special effects –it has also been deployed for disruptive means. In either case, the final product is a manipulation. If well done, it’s virtually impossible to discern authenticity from illusion. We can no longer trust what’s before our eyes.

We can, however, put stock in the disinterested findings of rigorous, data-driven, peer-reviewed research. Our faculty have dedicated their life’s work to producing just that. And the discoveries and innovations that result enhance quality of life for the many communities we serve.

In an age when hyperbole and fabrications can be widely disseminated with a few keystrokes, it should reassure all of us that our UB faculty’s intellectual work is helping us make sense of, and make well-informed decisions about, the world around us.