In pursuit of tech equity In pursuit of tech equity In pursuit of tech equity

UW's new student regent Jay Cunningham wants more inclusive machine learning

By Tatiana Rodriguez | Photo by Lisa Kay Photography | Viewpoint Magazine

As a kid, Jay Cunningham was interested in technology, but he could never afford the latest gadgets. Instead, he would watch product reviews on YouTube. When he was a high school senior, he was thrilled when his library got an Alexa smart speaker. However, when he or other students would try to use it, it wouldn't understand their questions.

“I’m from a Black Southern town in rural Mississippi,” Cunningham says. “People who make AI technology don’t look or sound like me. So how is Alexa supposed to know what I ask?”

As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, Cunningham studied computer science and interned at Meta, the company that owns and operates Facebook and Instagram. He became interested in human-centered design after meeting research scientists working with Oculus headsets and virtual reality. He began to examine how people interacted with robots and how culture influenced technology. This newfound interest caused him to further his studies in the UW’s Human-Centered Design & Engineering program.

Now a fifth-year Ph.D. student, Cunningham focuses his research on inclusive and responsible artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches for marginalized and vulnerable users. He explores the use of the human-centered design methods of community collaboration and participatory design that center around equity and address implications around identity, culture and power.  “Black and African American English speakers typically have a much harder time interacting with language technologies like voice assistance and transcription, or even speech to text,” he says.

Throughout his academic career, Cunningham has noted how few people there are in engineering spaces who look and sound like him. He is the first African American man in the HCDE doctoral program, and has worked with the department to recruit more Black students and faculty. Cunningham has also joined a number of student organizations and mentored undergraduate students through research programs. He also works with Black community programs that mentor first- and second-year students at Seattle’s Garfield High School.

This year, Cunningham joined the UW Board of Regents as the student representative. He says he plans to bring more than a student perspective to the board: “I have made Seattle my home and have dedicated myself to leaving the University better than how I came in.”