Several State University of New York students have commenced a special kind of up-and-coming research they will continue through the summer and beyond: Using artificial intelligence in a variety of fields and how to do it ethically.

SUNY leaders and elected officials participated Monday in roundtable discussions with student researchers focused on AI across several industries and ideas about how to regulate the emerging technology. 

"With great risk is great possibilities," said Mauricio Rodriguez, a University at Albany senior studying psychology. "These are the AI tools that could put us on Mars. They could help us colonize other planets — something that just one human on their own could never fathom."

Rodriguez is one of several students living on the UAlbany campus this summer to research how artificial intelligence can help people think outside the box in the workplace. But the excitement about the emerging technology also comes with concerns about users' privacy, data and the spread of disinformation.

Students selected for the internship program receive a $4,500 stipend for eight weeks of research, in addition to covered housing and meal plans. SUNY has prioritized applicants from low-income backgrounds or first-generation college students for the program.

"In too many cases around the contry, internships are something for affluent students because they don't get paid," SUNY Chancellor John King said Monday. "But by investing in internship programs that are paid, we can make sure that internships are equitably available." 

A total of 199 SUNY students are participating in internships this summer, including 49 focused on artificial intelligence. Those undergraduates will spend their summer learning a deeper understanding of AI, how it can make manufacturing more efficient and help people while exploring how it should be regulated. 

Student researchers said they have started research projects using artificial intelligence to prevent cyberattacks, code software, to detect salmonella on food or to solve puzzles.

"I want to gain a deeper understanding and how to utilize it for the greater good — not to help corporations who are already excluding people enough as-is," said Betul Tok, a UAlbany junior studying informatics with a concentration in software development.

SUNY put a special focus on AI research internship opportunities as New York looks to be a national leader in the field.

Public and private funds totaling $400 million in the last state budget will create the Empire AI consortium at SUNY's four university centers of Albany, Stonybrook, the University of Buffalo and Binghamton and other institutions. SUNY will also invest capital project funds to help build an AI super-computing site at the University of Buffalo within the next two years.

SUNY committed over $14 million to its paid internship programs in the last two years after an increase in state aid. 

"If not for this funding, they might have to take a job that's totally unrelated to what they're studying. But because of this funding, they're able to improve their skills and knowledge and prepare for their future careers," King said.

King told Spectrum News 1 the ethical use of AI will be a central focus of researching, including how to ensure information is trustworthy and protections against deepfake images or videos — especially ahead of critical elections.

Students said they will focus on using AI in a positive way, but because the tool is trained by humans, it will mimic human error and bias, which must be regulated.

"If the bias isn't correctly regulated, it can create so much harmful information," Tok said. "It can influence the public opinion, it can influence elections, it can influence the way people see one another, fueling a lot of conflict."

State and federal lawmakers must determine how to protect users’ information and define bias as they get familiar with the technology, but that research has just begun.

"Just as the caveman wandered into the unknown in the darkness, we too must take such a leap," Rodriguez said. "it is the unknown that may scare us but may also educate us and ultimately, that should be the objective goal of humanity to pursue the absolute truth."