By Angela Nixon ’99, M ’01
Illustrations by Chris Koelle

Whether it’s code, color or creative writing, machine learning opens the door to better understanding

When Dillon Ranwala enrolled at Clemson as a computer science major, the last thing he expected to analyze was “To be, or not to be” and “wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

Ranwala joined a Creative Inquiry team called “Watt AI,” looking for a project that would give him hands-on experience in IBM’s artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning program, Watson. He was surprised to find Shakespeare research on the list of projects he could join.

Lucian Ghita, senior lecturer of English, started the project in 2019 when he joined the Watt Faculty Fellows, a program designed to promote the Watt Family Innovation Center’s unique resources to faculty in a variety of disciplines. Ghita had read a paper about using AI to analyze the language in Macbeth, and he wanted to explore how AI could be used to analyze other Shakespeare plays. Since natural language understanding is one of Watson’s primary purposes, it seemed the perfect tool to approach some very old and familiar works in a new way.

Ghita and his team are using Watson to analyze emotion in Shakespeare’s plays and how emotional expression differs between genres and genders. He hopes his findings will bring a greater understanding of Shakespeare’s works and could help actors and directors express characters’ emotions even more effectively.

The first project the group tackled was Hamlet, which actually exists in three versions of different lengths. The earliest version is much shorter than what most people consider the traditional version of the play, says Ghita.

“This has allowed me to see how I can work in arts and literature while also being a STEM major.”

Alison Menezes

“We wanted to see if there were any differences in the emotional scores between the different versions, and we found some interesting things,” he continues. “In the first version, everything happens much faster, and Hamlet is more decisive in his actions. In later versions, the action is slowed down, and Hamlet agonizes more over what to do and whether or not to seek his revenge for much longer.

“In the shorter version, Hamlet is angrier and less fearful, but in later versions, the fear scores were higher, and the anger scores were lower.”

Ghita and his team are now looking at all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays and how emotion is expressed differently across their various genres. The bulk of the work is feeding each line of dialogue into the AI and teaching it how to detect emotions by different words.

Alison Menezes, a freshman computer science major, is one of the students helping teach Watson about Shakespeare. She says the team has about 60,000 lines of text to enter for the project, about half of which she is responsible for.

“We label and categorize each line, and I now have a way better understanding of AI than I did before,” she says. “I can see that it is different than the ‘magical technology’ I thought it was. There’s a lot of coding, a lot of logic to it.”

As a musician majoring in computer science, Menezes was drawn to the project because it blended her interests in computing and technology with the arts.

“This has allowed me to see how I can work in arts and literature while also being a STEM major,” she says. “I feel like there is a lot of potential for applying AI to the arts and music that I would love to explore.”

Ranwala agrees: “I have been able to learn how to work on a team of people who don’t necessarily have the same background as I do, such as an English professor or a statistician. But we have all been able to work together and bring in our own subject matter expertise and communicate with one another so that we all understand what we’re doing. In the real workplace, that’s what you need to be able to do.”

“The Creative Inquiry program really separates Clemson from other research universities.”

Jeremy Spooner

The stuff of science fiction

In 1956, the term “artificial intelligence” was first coined at a Dartmouth College conference. The Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence focused on a field that had previously been the stuff of science fiction — developing “thinking machines” that could learn, solve problems and make decisions in the same way the human mind does.

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue, a supercomputer built to learn and play chess, defeated a human opponent, world chess champion Garry Kasparov. A milestone in AI research and development, the victory was a very public demonstration that computers can learn from input and make decisions and predictions based on that input.

IBM went on to develop Watson, a question-answering AI computer system that made history in 2011 when it won Jeopardy!, defeating champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. Watson has since been further developed to include processing and analyzing natural language, generating hypotheses, and retrieving information. Today, Watson is used in industries ranging from agriculture to health care to help analyze large quantities of data and provide subsequent insights.

In 2018, Watson came to Clemson through a partnership with IBM and the Watt Family Innovation Center. Known as Watt AI, the program assists faculty across campus with using AI and machine learning tools in their research. Students get hands-on experience using AI through the Watt AI Creative Inquiry project.

Creative Inquiry is Clemson’s nationally recognized cross-disciplinary undergraduate research program. More than 2,800 students from all majors participate in Creative Inquiry each semester, working directly with faculty mentors and a team of peers to tackle real-world problems.

The human brains behind the AI in the Watt Center are research associates Hudson Smith and Carl Ehrett M ’17. Smith and Ehrett lead the Watt AI Creative Inquiry class and mentor student teams working with faculty on various AI-related projects. They are working with more than 30 projects from a range of disciplines, including health care, marketing, engineering, political science and literature.

“We facilitate AI and machine learning research for any faculty who are interested in applying it to their research but might not have the background or the experience to do it alone,” says Ehrett.

Protecting the Clemson colors

Whenever Erica Walker M ’05, Ph.D.’16 and her husband would watch Clemson Football games, she noticed that Clemson Orange often looked red, depending on what TV she was watching. As an assistant professor in graphic communications with an education in film production, she is well aware of how important colors are to an organization’s brand. She wondered if there was a way to correct it so that Clemson Orange would look like Clemson Orange consistently, regardless of the TV.

Walker was familiar with the work Smith and Ehrett were doing, so she asked if AI could be used for color correction — specifically for color correction in fast-paced, live broadcast situations like sports. They created a Creative Inquiry project, and over the next few years, ColorNet was born.

“What ColorNet is made to do is identify and correct specific brand colors live on a video feed,” Walker says. For now, ColorNet is trained to correct Clemson’s official colors — Clemson Orange and Regalia — but the software has now been patented and could be trained to correct any brand’s colors as they appear in video and photography.

To correct colors as an event on a live broadcast, the AI must identify the incorrect colors and make the color correction in fractions of a second. And it must do that without altering any other colors it is not programmed to correct.

The ColorNet team is also developing an app that will implement color correction in photos on the fly. For example, this technology could be used by social media managers who are posting photos in real time during events.

Michelle Mayer and Jeremy Spooner are two computer engineering seniors who have worked on the ColorNet project for several years. And both of them already have jobs lined up after they graduate in May. Mayer is going to be a software engineer at Microsoft in Charlotte, and Spooner has been hired as a software engineer at AT&T’s headquarters in Dallas. Both credit their experience on the project with helping them land their jobs.

“The Creative Inquiry program really separates Clemson from other research universities,” Spooner says. “Programs like this are how our students are a step above students from other schools in applying for jobs. We have a huge advantage coming out of college after going through this program.”

Man versus machine in marketing

The Watt Center isn’t the only place where AI research is happening at Clemson. Mike Giebelhausen, associate professor of marketing, has a Creative Inquiry group exploring whether AI can replace humans in a variety of roles, including the creation of ads and other brand communications.

Cadency, a student-run ad agency in the Erwin Center for Brand Communication, wrote ad copy for several fictitous products while an AI tool generated ad copy for those same products. The ads were split into categories — emotional or utilitarian. They asked people to rate the ads, and the results were a bit surprising.

“Our initial hypothesis was that humans might do a better job at emotional ads,” says Giebelhausen. “Instead, we found that humans were relatively better at creating utilitarian ads” — which Geibelhausen and his team theorized is because the AI was better at expressing empathy than sympathy.

“The algorithm was pretty good at adding emotion, actually, which is not that surprising in retrospect because a lot of the technology has been built around the idea of sentiment analysis and being good at detecting sentiment in language,” he explains. “We found it didn’t have as good a capability to understand problems that people need to solve, whereas copywriters really have felt that pain. So humans were able to write a more effective utilitarian ad.”

The project allowed siblings Meg and Charles Truluck the chance to team up and work together. Meg, a marketing major who works for Cadency, provided the human-generated ad copy, and Charles, a computer science major, worked with the AI algorithm to create the computer-generated copy. They both liked that the project gave them the opportunity to dabble in one another’s field of study.

“I feel like that’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do at a lot of other schools,” says Charles. “You would have to be a marketing major to do undergraduate research in marketing.”

“It’s cool to be able to do research with someone from a totally opposite major,” says Meg. “Computer science and marketing, you would probably say that they’re the farthest from each other, but it’s crazy how much they really do intertwine.”

What is Creative Inquiry?

Creative Inquiry is Clemson’s unique undergraduate research program that combines experiential learning, multi-disciplinary interactions and team-based research. Since it began in 2005, more than 55,000 students from every major have participated in Creative Inquiry projects.

Today, approximately 2,800 students participate in Creative Inquiry each semester, exploring a wide range of topics, from robotic surgery to sustainable peach packaging to thermoregulartion in spring flowers. Projects typically last for multiple semesters, allowing students and faculty to dive deeper as they tackle tough questions and search for solutions to life’s global challenges.

Students also have the opportunity to work with industry-leading companies through the Corporate Creative Inquiry program, which allows students to apply their knowledge and skills to real-world problems presented by industry partners. These experiences help open the door to potential internships and future employment possibilities.

Creative Inquiry has been nationally recognized as a leader in undergraduate research and engagement, including receiving the 2016 Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishment from the Council on Undergraduate Research.

For more information, visit the Creative Inquiry website.

“The AI and machine- learning tools we use are all in the service of knowledge discovery.”

Hudson Smith

Coding + critical thinking

In their AI class at the Watt Center, Smith and Ehrett are not only teaching students about coding and creating learning models, but also discussing perceptions of AI in society and the ethical implications and problems that can arise with things like bias.

“One of our goals is to help students think critically about the role of technology in society and to think about the impact these tools can have,” Smith says.

“For example, AI might have outcomes that are disproportionately favoring one group over another,” says Ehrett. “We try to teach them how that can happen and ways to guard against it.”

Smith and Ehrett realize that for many people, AI still seems like something out of a science fiction movie about robots taking over the world.

“AI is a fraught term that doesn’t have a truly concrete definition, but it is really just a tool to support decision-making,” Smith says. “When we have so much data that we don’t have the manpower to analyze it or use it, we use AI to bring that knowledge to bear. The AI and machine learning tools we use are all in the service of knowledge discovery.”

Bridging the Gaps in Career Readiness

Working with Watt AI is preparing students for their careers in more ways than one. Clemson’s Center for Career and Professional Development is using AI technology to look at the differences between students’ perceptions of their own career readiness and what prospective employers are saying.

Clemson’s career center has identified nine core competencies that students need to develop to succeed in the workplace — communication, collaboration, leadership, adaptability, analytical skills, technology, integrity and ethics, self-awareness and brand.

“When you look at how an employer ranks those competencies and then when you look at how a student ranks those competencies, there’s a gap,” says Troy Nunamaker M ’00, M ’03, Ph.D.’20, chief solutions officer for the career center. “Students often think they perform higher in those competencies than employers think they do.”

The idea to use AI to identify and quantify this gap started with Nunamaker’s dissertation when he was earning his Ph.D. in higher education administration. He manually analyzed surveys from students who had completed internships and their internship employers to look for differences in each group’s responses to core competency questions. He wanted to dig deeper but had neither the time nor the personnel to comb through more surveys, so he turned to Watt AI for help. Now, he can analyze thousands of surveys per semester.

The first year of the project was focused on leadership, looking at the ways student interns responded about their own leadership skills versus the way their employers did. The AI was taught to look for certain words that described leadership as either transactional — focused on rewards and consequences — or transformational leadership through encouragement and empowerment. The AI found that students tended to describe their own leadership as strictly in one style or another, whereas employers tended to want more of a blended approach.

Nunamaker says he hopes the results will allow the career center to better coach students on the job application process, as well as understand how these core competencies are taught and how that can be improved. The project has been recognized with an award from the Cooperative Education and Internship Association for distinguished excellence in the field.

For Daniel Smith ’20, his work on the project helped him land his job as a software engineer for NCR Corporation in Atlanta. He worked on the project as a student, implementing the AI model and labeling the data so it would know what keywords to search for.

“This project was where I learned the most about AI and machine learning. I learned the fundamentals in the classroom, but this was where I got my hands dirty in AI,” Smith says.

Smith connected with NCR at a hack-a-thon event at Georgia Tech, which he entered using the same kind of machine-learning tool that he used in his Creative Inquiry project. He didn’t win, but he caught the attention of an NCR recruiter, which led to a job interview and an eventual job offer.

Angela S. Nixon ’99, M ’01 is director of marketing and communications for Clemson Libraries, Watt Family Innovation Center, Creative Inquiry, Clemson University Press and Historic Properties.

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