Brown receives NSF grant to research interaction between machines and society

Philip Brown

Philip Brown, assistant professor of computer science, received a National Science Foundation grant award of $250,472 for his project titled “Socially Networked Autonomy: How Should Machines Interact with Society?” The three-year award will additionally fund a full-time Ph.D. student to assist in research.

The project studies decision design methodologies for independent agents that network with human societal systems. Brown explained that one of the main motivating questions for this project is “how selfishly should self-driving cars behave?” Naive designers might program a vehicle to be altruistic — that is, to behave in a way that attempts to “make life better” for all the cars around it. However, prior work has shown that is not always a good approach, and that in some scenarios it is actually better to make self-driving cars completely selfish and ignore the benefits to others completely. In this project, the mathematics of this and other similar situations are researched to seek a fundamental understanding of when and why altruism can paradoxically backfire and lead to unintended consequences.

“I’m thrilled about this award. It gives me the chance to sink my teeth into a topic I’ve been thinking about for many years, and to grow my lab and the UCCS research community in the process,” Brown said. “We’ll be exploring some rich mathematical problems that are fundamental to several related areas in power systems, robotics and economics, so I expect this will lead to many great research opportunities in the future.”

As more autonomous and smart devices are integrated into society, the theories of social influence of cyber-physical systems with humans and human behavior becomes critical to understand and model for effective, efficient, and principled interactions.

The National Science Foundation promotes the progress of science; advances the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and secures the national defense. It is the only federal agency that supports fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering, from mathematics and the geosciences to the biological, behavioral and computer sciences — and more. NSF also helps researchers and small businesses develop their discoveries into products and services through technology development, entrepreneurship training and industrial partnerships.