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Faculty Spotlight: Sina Fazelpour

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As a joint appointee in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, Sina Fazelpour says his work primarily focuses on decision-making. More specifically: How do communities make “good” decisions, what do those decisions look like in connected and increasingly algorithmic social contexts, and how do we ensure decision-making systems are designed and evaluated in ways that effectively capture our core values.

“Obviously, the notion of ‘good’ itself is multifaceted,” says Fazelpour. “So, I look at ‘good’ from the perspective of accuracy and reliability, but also from the ethical perspective of fairness, justice, inclusion, and diversity.”

As an assistant professor of philosophy and computer science, Fazelpour says an interdisciplinary approach to answering some of these questions is crucial, as well as the study of digital systems like machine learning and artificial intelligence. In fact, the interdisciplinary approach was one the main reasons he came to Northeastern University in 2021.

“My background and all my research is very cross-disciplinary, it doesn’t fit neatly within either discipline,” says Fazelpour. “There are many universities that talk about being interdisciplinary but they currently don’t have the infrastructure, frameworks, or the mechanism for promoting interdisciplinary research in the long-term. And then, Northeastern came up.”

He sees that same desire to integrate diverse subject areas in his students, and maintains a great appreciation for the students who come to his classroom with their own combined or double majors that stretch disciplines and a desire to make real-world change.

Fazelpour grew up in Iran, where he says careers based in engineering and medicine are highly prized. Fazelpour initially studied biomedical engineering, and received a bachelor’s degree in the field. But throughout his undergraduate studies, he read about philosophy. Books on the history of philosophy and philosophy of science captured his interest, but it never crossed his mind to take up formal studies in philosophy. In Iran, it isn’t common for people to go into philosophy–and he knows that sentiment exists elsewhere, too.

“There is a hesitancy that is, ‘Philosophy is so abstract, how can it have any real-world impact?’” says Fazelpour. “Sometimes, there’s a grain of truth to some of these things. In the class that I was teaching, Technology and Human Values, one of the things that we try to do is that for each of the socially urgent questions that come up in relation to artificial intelligence and machine learning, we try to really motivate, ‘Why is it necessary to think about these issues, philosophically?’ Obviously, if you’re trying to measure something like fairness or justice or diversity, you can’t do that without first having a clear, conceptual understanding of what these mean.”

Those topics of fairness, justice, and diversity continue to be the focus of Fazelpour’s work. Currently, he is working on the pilot rendition of the IDEAS – Intelligence, Data, Ethics, and Society – Summer Program, which will launch this July. In collaboration with University of California-San Diego, the week-long initiative encourages undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds to learn from and collaborate with experts on data science, ethics, computer science, philosophy, law, and more. His colleagues from CSSH’s philosophy and religion department–Adam Omar Hosein, Meica Magnani, and Vance Ricks–will join the program as guest speakers.

The program emphasizes the importance of collaboration–a recurring sentiment for him that he says he tries to emphasize in every class he teaches. He wants students in the program to learn to apply an interdisciplinary lens to solving complex problems, and not to hone just one perspective.

“Appreciating other people’s perspectives and [knowing] when to ask others–that’s a good sign of being smart,” says Fazelpour.

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