Kaiping Chen, an assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication who specializes in computational communication, has been named the first recipient of the Burkhardt Seed Grant Professorship. This professorship supports and encourages early-stage, high-risk/high-reward research at UW–Madison. Chen will hold this appointment for the next three years.

The Burkhardt Professorship was established by Martin and Kathleen Burkhardt, UW­­­–Madison alumni in biological systems engineering and home economics, respectively, who have been long-time supporters of the university. The new professorship works in an unusual way; interested faculty submit research proposals, and the faculty member with the winning proposal receives the professorship. Selection is done by a subcommittee of the CALS Research Advisory Committee and preference is given to interdisciplinary projects, particularly out-of-the-box research that could have the potential to significantly change the world.

Chen’s winning proposal focuses on artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and involves collaborators in the UW–Madison mathematics and computer sciences departments. The project investigates how AI algorithms — specifically AI used in voice-enabled assistants such as Alexa or Siri — can amplify social inequalities of societally important priorities. In particular, the study will explore the conversational biases that can occur as chatbots respond to populations who vary in their demographics, ideology and attitudes toward science and social issues.

Chen’s broader research program focuses on computational communication, where she utilizes data science, machine learning, and interviews to examine how digital media and technologies affect political accountability to public well-being and civic dialogues. Her research spans across communication, political science and computer sciences, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and American Family Insurance, and she frequently collaborates with scientists outside of CALS and outside UW–Madison.