Summer program gives high schoolers hands-on experience with artificial intelligence


Over the course of human history, certain technologies have changed the way we live our lives: movable type led to widespread literacy; the steam engine spurred an industrial revolution; the internet allows for instantaneous communication across the globe.

After three weeks in Princeton this summer, a group of students spent time working with an emergent and slowly ubiquitous technology that Tess Posner, CEO of the non-profit AI4ALL, compares to electricity – artificial intelligence (AI).

“It’s everywhere, but you don’t notice it,” she said before the closing banquet for AI4ALL’s first summer program at Princeton University on August 11.

The three-week program — which was also hosted at Stanford University, Berkeley University of California, Carnegie Mellon University, Simon Fraser University and Boston University — aims to increase diversity in the technology sector, specifically with AI.

The program is offered to high school students who are members of underrepresented demographics in tech, such as women, people of color and those from low income communities, and allows them to develop and work on their own projects involving AI.

“Diversity in AI is so critical because it’s one of those important technologies of our time that’s shaping the fourth Industrial Revolution; it’s becoming ubiquitous in terms of our everyday lives,” Posner said. “When we leave out minorities, women, people of color, low income people, we’re missing out on their contributions and their talent.”

For the first program at Princeton University, the projects were divided into groups: Self-Driving Cars, Natural Language Processing, Internet of Things and Fragile Families.

Michaela Guo, an incoming 11th grader at Princeton High School, participated in the program in the Internet of Things group, which took a closer look at how smart devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home and other home appliances that connect to Wifi operate.

The group looked at “packets” of information that the devices send back and forth through IP addresses. If someone were to look at these IP addresses, Guo said, they could determine what websites the device visits to retrieve the desired information.

From there, in Guo’s group used a packet analyzer called WireShark, which allowed them to sift through the information they gathered from the devices. The students also used various algorithms to sort the data in the packets.

“We get to see the inner workings of the device, so we can better understand how it works and how these smart devices communicate with each other,” Guo said.

Through the project, the team also found there were security risks with the rise of smart devices that use AI to connect to the internet.

“We think we learned that it’s better to be cautious because we understand the risks we put ourselves in when we use this technology rather than be worried because we have misconceptions about what the technology we have can and can’t do,” Guo said.

Edward Felten, co-director of AI4ALL’s Princeton program and professor of computer science at Princeton University, said the program is important for the future of the technology field.

“There’s a sense that AI is going to be transformative, just like the internet was, and understanding what AI is and where it’s likely to go is important for the students and it’s an important thing for future leaders to know,” he said.

Felten also led a trip for the students to Washington D.C. earlier this month, where they met with industry professionals and organizations working on AI policy, including the the Federal Trade Commission, the General Services Administration and the National League of Cities.

To help advance and expand the national programs, announced a $1 million grant to AI4ALL, which will be used toward a new Open Online Learning Platform, Posner said.

“That’s basically to take the curriculum from the camps and make that more widely accessible and available for free,” she said. “We’re very excited about that because the camps are this amazing, impactful experience, but they don’t reach places around the world, and this allows us to spread that knowledge widely in addition to expanding the camp model that works really well.”

After the three-week camp is completed, AI4ALL offers an alumni program that enforces a community element, mentorship and internship and job opportunities.

Guo said, “I think we’re all really excited about the alumni program, there are so many resources it has to offer, and of course we all want to stay connected to each other.”

Now that the program is completed, Guo is thankful she had the opportunity to “communicate freely” about AI technology and ethics, and to meet people her age also interested in AI.

“I think, more than anything, [AI4ALL] makes me want to empower other people as well and help other people feel the same way as I now do,” she said.