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Photo of Betty Hou '22

Photo of Betty Hou '22

How Santa Clara Helped Betty Hou ’22 Find Herself, And A New Life Direction

“Coming to Santa Clara was one of the best things that has happened to me.”

“Coming to Santa Clara was one of the best things that has happened to me.”

Ask Betty Hou ’22 about the most important thing she discovered during her four years at Santa Clara, and she’ll tell you it was herself—learning to trust her instincts, to keep an open mind, and to embrace change. 

Quite by chance, she also stumbled on a new direction in life: the world of artificial intelligence ethics. Specifically, how to build AI systems that will help, rather than harm, humanity and civilization.

No one was more excited by that aha moment than Hou, who entered SCU in 2018 as a Computer Science and Engineering major and is leaving as a Computer Science PhD candidate, on her way to New York University this fall to pursue a field that has become her driving force.

“I’ve found something that speaks to me, that I can be passionate about, and that I can use my skills and talents for—I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot,” says Hou, a 2021-22 Hackworth Fellow at SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Together with Brian Patrick Green, the center’s Director of Technology Ethics, Hou has been working since last year on original AI ethics research they will present to colleagues on campus in May, and then at an international conference in September. 

Along the way, the math and science whiz—whose childhood bedroom was decorated with rows of academic awards symbolizing her hard work and sacrifice—also found enlightenment at Santa Clara. Non-technical courses, from “Conscientious Capitalism” to “History of Emotions,” gave her the kinds of personal insights that she hadn’t considered before.

Among other things, Hou learned not to be so hard on herself.

“I learned that I have to hold myself to realistic standards and that I can celebrate my accomplishments along the way,” says the Seattle native. “Which doesn't mean that I'm dropping the standards for myself.” 

A new direction

The second of two children born to engineer parents—her mother is a longtime research scientist at Boeing, her father is in computer science—it seemed only natural that Hou would follow in their STEM footsteps at one of several colleges where she applied. A family friend’s recommendation helped to steer her to Santa Clara instead, along with a scholarship that paid for half of her tuition.

“I wanted a smaller school, and I thought as a whole this would be a better fit for me. I just went with my gut on that,” she says. “And it was easy to go from rain to sun.” 

Hou did well in her required tech courses, applying her skills to an internship at Amazon where she worked as a software development engineer—both in person in the summer of 2019, and virtually during the summer of 2020 after the pandemic had emptied college campuses. It was the beginning of what she imagined would be a career in the tech industry.

Summer internships at Amazon.

Summer internships at Amazon.

 

Hou even managed to study abroad in the winter quarter of 2021 at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. When she returned to SCU that spring to live near campus, her schedule included something novel: a core course on ethics in technology.

For Hou, it was an epiphany.

“We talked about the problems that can come about with AI, because it’s so powerful and has potential applications in ways we don’t even know yet,” she explains. “It's already used for health care, criminal justice, transportation, and other critical sectors of our daily lives.”

The subject was also a natural intersection with the technical classes she already had excelled in, from coding algorithms to building machine-learning models. The combination of those interests prompted her to apply for a Hackworth Fellowship, a select group of 10 SCU students assigned to apply ethics to “a topic of concrete concern.” 

I got really excited, and I think it came across in my application,” she recalls. “I remember thinking: why aren't more people working on ethics? And if there's anything I want to do in the field of AI, it was this.”

Solving a two-part problem

Hou was not only accepted to the fellowship, she was teamed with Markkula’s Professor Green to do research in AI alignment, the topic of ensuring that AI is properly aligned with human values. Hou says she was drawn to the research because it’s “half a technical problem, and half an ethics problem.” 

Her paper with Green will provide examples about AI mis-alignments involving content moderation, autonomous vehicles, and health care devices, as well as presenting a framework for building properly aligned AI. For example, sophisticated new AI tools are being marketed to surgeons to assist with identifying biological structures as they operate on patients.

“But what happens if the surgeon doesn’t agree with the AI? How should the surgeon go about, who would hold the responsibility, and how can we avoid situations like this to begin with?" says Hou. “These are big issues, especially if they are life-threatening.”

Taking on that kind of challenge is exactly “where I'm at in terms of my purpose, and the greater vision for my life,” says the recent recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will provide funding for three years of her graduate program at NYU.

Off to an exciting future.

Off to an exciting future.

 

Hou is the first Santa Clara student since 2014 to win the award as an undergraduate, and earlier in the school year was selected as a Marshall Scholarship Finalist. It was the first time in SCU’s history that a student has progressed to the final round. 

Meanwhile, she snagged a scholarship from Google DeepMind that will provide a stipend for her first graduate school academic year and summer, on top of a full ride from the NYU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

“I think these awards are a testament to how important this work is right now,” says Hou. “I’m just honored to be entrusted as the one who actually gets to do it, and I’ll be giving my all for it.”


At NYU, she’ll be working in the Machine Learning for Good lab, where she'll use her combined technical and ethical perspective to solve real-world AI problems. 

“I found a passion for AI ethics, all thanks to that core class I took in junior year,” says Hou, still amazed by the happenstance that has re-framed her life. “Coming to Santa Clara is one of the best things that has happened to me.”

 

Engineering, Technology, Social Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Research, Undergraduate, Culture, Fellowships, SOE, Student Spotlight
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