SOE Computer Science Prof's Research Helps Fight Cyberbullying
After completing his PhD at UCLA and post-doc study at both MIT and at Clemson University, Jamie C. Macbeth, assistant professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering, brought his cutting-edge research on cyberbullying prevention to Fairfield last year.
“All across the board people are getting cyberbullied,” Dr. Macbeth said, “Even in places where you wouldn’t expect, like YouTube video pages, people are "trolling" each other. It’s a serious problem.”
Generally speaking, Dr. Macbeth, a New York City native, conducts research on the intersection between human computer interaction and intelligent systems or artificial intelligence (AI) with the goal to build intelligent systems that can help people — and society — with cyberbulling issues.
Dr. Macbeth’s question is this: “Could intelligent systems be running on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media websites, to look at the posts that people are making to see if they’re potentially harmful to someone?”
There are all kinds of entities that can monitor social media platform activity, but there’s so much social media out there — studies show that there are something like 500 million tweets alone out there everyday — it’s too much for any single organization to handle on their own. So the hard part, Dr. Macbeth explained, is trying to actually get the computers to understand language.
Concerning cyber bullying and computational language and context comprehension, Dr. Macbeth has worked with MTV on their website Over the Line?, a crowd-sourced social ethics website where people can post their stories about things that they’ve experienced online and other people can read and rate those stories on their level of potential danger.
“Over the Line? has become a great resource in building intelligent systems to understand what is and is not a harmful thing to do online based on their ratings and rankings,” Dr. Macbeth explained and talked about another resource he and his team have used for language comprehension, Formspring.me, an ask-and-answer website, where people rampantly “troll” each other but are protected by anonymity.
“It’s definitely detrimental to our society. I’m a computer scientist, not a psychologist or a social scientist, though I do work with people who are experts in those fields, but I think these kinds of behaviors that are intentionally hurtful to other people spread like a disease if we allow them to.”
But, cyberbullying prevention is just one part of Dr. Macbeth’s work in the social media arena.
Currently, he’s also working on research to prevent gang violence with colleagues Desmond Patton, PhD, assistant professor of Social Work and Kathleen R. McKeown, PhD, director of the Data Science Institute and Henry and Gertrude Rothschild professor of Computer Science, both at Columbia University.
“What we’re interested in doing is looking at the ways in which urban gang violence, particularly firearm violence, is spread through social media and the way that opposing gangs and organizations use social media as a platform to escalate conflicts and recruit — particularly on Facebook.”
Dr. Macbeth’s team is working with the largely Chicago-based group Cure Violence, a non-profit which has a mission to shift the thinking, policy, and practice as it relates to violence such that it is seen primarily as health issue, to monitor at-risk youth and de-escalate violent gang activity.
Finally, his most recent project, focuses on creating a social media strategy for conflicts that occur in public school systems and the effectiveness of punitive methods of punishments. Dr. Macbeth’s research here hones in on the idea of restorative justice and how to build peaceful, meaningful, conflict resolution tools into social media platforms.
When asked about societal apprehension of artificial intelligence and whether or not computers will — eventually — take-over everything, Macbeth said that AI is a tool of and for people that may have evil capabilities but only if people are using them for evil.
“A lot of what you see in the news about capabilities of systems is hyped,” he said with a chuckle, citing historical projects that fell short of their expectations like Eliza in the 60’s, Expert Systems of the 80’s and the 2014 University of Reading competition wherein a Russian chatter bot passed the "Turing Test” and convinced 33 percent of the contest's judges that it was human (notwithstanding the contextual complexity that the computer posed as a young boy who spoke imperfect English).
That said, AI and language comprehension specifically, are burgeoning fields — advancing at a rapid pace (i.e. Siri has probably made her way into your life by now and more voice control is on its way).
“But, if I’m successful, there will be a greater chance for computers not to be harmful,” Dr. Macbeth said, adding that Fairfield's Jesuit pedigogical limelight on ethics has been a particularly good fit for his work.
He finds working with Fairfield University students on his research and in class — at the both the graduate and undergraduate level — to be a rewarding experience.
“Fairfield students have a strong sense of social justice, giving back to the community, helping marginalized communities and doing the right thing. That’s an area in which Fairfield students really stand apart,” he said. “They really care about helping the world and so for the projects that I’m working on, that’s a connection that we have.”
Pictured at right: Dr. Jamie C. Macbeth, assistant professor of Computer Science, in the School of Engineering.