#WhoWeAre Wednesday: Meet Dr. Cyrus P. Olsen III

For today’s #WhoWeAreWednesday we feature an interview with research and peoples fellow Dr. Cyrus P. Olsen III.  Cyrus’s research is multi-disciplinary and team-based; he works with colleagues in Uganda and the USA at the intersections of religion, medicine, and ecology.

How would you describe your experience with AI?

My face has the most experience with AI/ML presently. Seriously though, I am your average consumer rather than an AI/ML creator. I first encountered AI/ML as an undergraduate at UW (Seattle) in the late 1990s through a course called “The Cultural Impact of Information Technology.” I recall a final project from a peer in biology/computer science; his algorithm sourced fruit-fly reproduction data to create its own simulation of biological evolution—brilliant! To this day, I remain among those thinking about the cultural impact of information technology alongside AI/ML creators. Such thinking is informed by a short stint working with AI/ML as a reach-truck operator in a large-object distribution center and collaboration with a boutique marketing company specializing in AI/ML. Additionally, I serve as a central node in a network of multi-disciplinary scholars, clinicians, and field researchers integrating science and religion, some of whom are applying AI/ML to our work. The Dhand Lab and the Human Network Initiative at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital invited me into their work for a collaborative project in Uganda, and I am learning from their expertise in Neurology and social network analyses.


How would you describe your faith background?

My faith background is broadly Christian. I am one of five children raised in an evangelical home dedicated to church leadership; for many years my parents pastored midwestern communities, rendering our home a social center where missionaries would sometimes project their slideshows on our walls offering dreams of distant lands. When we moved west, faith and beauty comingled in the Cascades, amplifying my aesthetic range from roots in music and art to include the resplendence of nature. Like many today, however, I am haunted by frequent losses of faith and visited by what George Steiner called nostalgia for the absolute. Consequently, I’ve meandered in and out of many Christian communities, sometimes feeling best when disaffecting altogether, though I now identify with Walker Percy’s moniker “bad Catholic.” Today my faith is sustained among humans applying the balm of radical belonging and questioning openness to heal our woundedness.


Why are you involved with AI&F?

Since I am AI/ML adjacent in my work, I aim to learn, collaborate, and exercise my gift for connecting people on projects requiring intellectual generosity and imagination. I owe my introduction to this community to my brother just as I took up a temporary research position as the LoSchiavo Chair in Catholic Social Thought at the University of San Francisco. The timeliness of the introduction is astonishing to me and I am honored to be involved. While here, I am freed-up from many of my usual duties and thus have time to collaborate, so I am assisting with the research and networking teams. I’ll say more about this momentarily, but I hope that my involvement keeps me humble about what I think I know about AI/ML and that I can then communicate more widely what I have learned from this community so that together we can co-dream what the McArthur Foundation calls a more “just, verdant, and equitable future.”


How does AI&F affect your work outside the organization?

AI&F affiliation fits naturally into my academic life.  The tag-line for my present position in the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition is “Exploring intersections of faith and social justice.” Indeed, I just returned from a Lilly Fellows Program National Conference on implicit bias in the academy that challenged us to radicalize that intersectionality in the name of anti-racist collaboration to which I am also dedicating my time and power. Participation in AI&F is thus a growth opportunity precisely in such intersectional spaces: I’m encouraged to write more, I meet new people, and moments like these amplify my work too. Bay Area members of the organization have already introduced me to their neighborhoods and invited me to their institutions for participation in their own programming. The affiliation also helped solidify service to my present institution in the areas of their Data Institute, Neuroscience major committee, and Global Education initiatives. So I thank you and the leadership of AI&F for the generous welcome.


What open problems in AI are you most interested in?

I am a Gen-Xer whose imagination is indelibly marked by late twentieth-century dystopian cinematic sci-fi. Avoiding fanciful images of AI is accordingly important for me since it helps temper my own vulnerabilities to apocalyptic and its attendant fear-mongering. Experts I know in the field prefer machine learning to artificial intelligence. As I noted above, I see myself as an engaged citizen accompanying machine learning experts in our co-creation of a more just future. Presently I am heavily invested in collaborating with colleagues in Uganda and I think AI/ML can be a great boon to our mutual efforts. We are working in various areas together, from preserving indigenous knowledge about medicinal plants, utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) for re-forestation, and studying how vibrant relationships with ancestors influences health-seeking behavior. I remain hopeful about collaborations on such projects where AI/ML can be applied. Fittingly for the recent celebrations of All Hallows Eve and Halloween, I am nevertheless deeply haunted by our difficulties in sustainable sourcing of precious metals. The raw violence of extractive capitalism as it is presently practiced perpetuates injustices to all involved. Perhaps, however, we can work together to create sustainable modes of innovation one meets in utopian visions from contemporary Afro-futurism or solar-punk, where biophilic design and justice are unified in a less destructive set of relationships.


A big thanks to Dr. Cyrus P. Olsen III for his time to carry out this interview. Thanks to Emily Wenger for proofreading, editing, and publishing this work.

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