As a first-generation college student in a new country, there were so many unknowns with respect to culture, conduct, academics, interests, foods, accents and more. However, these pale in comparison to navigating a colossal college machinery of more than 45,000 students to find an understanding of myself and the world.
I identified early on that merging my African background with my computer sciences training would help facilitate my navigation and growth process.
I didn’t hesitate to tackle difficult and challenging topics. After presenting on the bigotry promulgated by artificial intelligence (AI) systems, including denying people kidney transplants, tagging them as apes and giving them longer prison sentences largely because they were Black, my class instructor introduced me to Reginold Royston, an assistant professor of African Cultural Studies whose work, he said, might interest me.
He was not wrong. Professor Royston’s work sought to merge two seemingly unrelated fields: technology and African Studies. Through the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) program, I worked with Professor Royston on examining technologies and their transnational influences, with a focus on AI in sub-Saharan Africa. This research, driven by a qualitative and humanities-based approach, allows me to analyze technologies with an eye towards equity and accessibility, and to see technologies as channels through which issues of gender, race, creed and class can be perpetuated or mitigated.
After a year of working with Professor Royston and advancing my technical and analytical understanding of AI, I started my second research project with Professor Michael Ferris of the Department of Computer Sciences.
In this research, I use data from dairy farms across the Midwest to create machine learning models that attempt to effectively predict how well cows convert feed into milk. This research gives me a fundamental understanding of advanced technologies and algorithms.
Both of my research mentors’ insistence on optimal results pushes me to learn and grow daily. This growth process involves understanding that those most affected by technologies are those least represented in their creation, and that I am not too small to influence change.
Inspired by this premise, I started the AI4AFRIKA@UW project, which allows undergraduate students to engage in research geared towards creating responsible, equitable and accessible technologies. Currently, students on this project are building machine translation systems for African languages, creating a mobile application that is optimized for minimal hardware and internet, and building a chatbot that provides instant and reliable information on mental and menstrual health issues. Researchers on this project are guided by the African ideology of “ubuntu” that affirms the positive values of community, difference, anti-racism, hospitality and openness to others.
As I wrangle data and scratch my head to build robust systems and analysis for my research projects, I know that every second spent brings me closer to understanding myself and my community. Leveraging these humanities and technical dimensions beyond my research, I am able to navigate my world knowing I am growing into a better student, a better leader and a better member of society.
Sheriff Issaka, from Ghana, is a senior majoring in Computer Sciences with certificates in Entrepreneurship and African Studies. He was an undergraduate researcher with Professors Reginold Royston and Michael Ferris, in the African Cultural Studies and Computer Sciences Departments, respectively.