Northeastern computer science professor Tina Eliassi-Rad, whose research uncovers the unseen but overwhelming influence that artificial intelligence algorithms have on people’s lives, is the recipient of a top international award for her work on complex systems.
Eliassi-Rad is scheduled to accept the Lagrange Prize-CRT Foundation, considered the highest international recognition for scientists in the field of complex systems and data, on July 10 in Turin, Italy.
She is being honored for taking “an in-depth look at the evolving scenarios of artificial intelligence and the impacts of science and technology on society,” according to the CRT Foundation, which has awarded the Lagrange Prize annually for 15 years.
“Her research pushes us to cross new frontiers in understanding data and to think more deeply about the ethics of the algorithms we are creating,” says Alessandro Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute and president of the ISI Foundation, which coordinates with CRT in awarding the Lagrange Prize.
“Her contribution is not just about technological evolution, but raises fundamental questions about their impact and responsibility in our daily lives,” he says.
One mission Eliassi-Rad, named one of the 100 most brilliant women in AI ethics in 2021, holds dear is getting people of all ages, genders and cultures to understand the impact AI has on them as human beings.
She has twice taught a Northeastern course that she created for first year honors students, called “Algorithms that affect lives.”
With scenarios such as targeted advertising to bipolar individuals whose social media activity indicated they were entering a manic phase, Eliassi-Rad encouraged students to think about the ethical dilemmas created by AI.
Some students would argue it was OK as long as it wasn’t illegal, while others said they didn’t want to be in a society that preyed on the pocketbooks of vulnerable people, she says.
“AI is part of complex systems. We should not only educate undergraduates—we should educate everybody,” she says.
Eliassi-Rad also has researched the impact of technology on destabilizing democratic systems in the U.S. and around the world.
“Social media is part of a complex system,” she says. When algorithms bring people into contact with other people who don’t believe socioeconomic and political systems are working for them, a destabilizing feedback loop can be created.
“If there’s too much randomness, too much chaos, then the complex system we call democracy becomes unstable. Then people become more susceptible to demagogues,” Eliassi-Rad says.
“Algorithms can have outsize influence. Transparency is important in this area.”
Born in the U.S. but raised in Iran, Eliassi-Rad says it’s important not to restrict education and opportunity to one race or gender.
“Talent is everywhere,” says Eliassi-Rad, who recently returned from a small village in Turkey where she taught summer school math and network science to students from developing and underdeveloped countries.
“Our AI technologies are embedded in broader complex systems. To truly understand and mitigate the harms and risks associated with AI, we need to study the broader complex systems in which AI technologies operate,” she says.
“This type of research requires interdisciplinary teams like those supported at Northeastern,” says Eliassi-Rad, who is on the faculty of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute and the Institute for Experiential AI.
She says she is “honored and humbled” to receive the 2023 Lagrange Prize from the CRT Foundation.
The Lagrange Prize-CRT Foundation, which comes with a 50,000 euros prize, was awarded in 2011 to Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a network science pioneer and Northeastern professor of physics.
According to the CRT Foundation, Eliassi-Rad has fostered “the development of multiple practical applications both in the private world and in government agencies” that contribute to the fight against fraud and cybercrime, the search for new therapeutic treatments and and the study of democratic backsliding as instability in socioeconomic and political systems.