From galaxies to faces: recognizing the implications of Artificial Intelligence in astronomy and society

Dr. Brian Nord (Fermilab)
Tuesday, March 9, 2021 - 11:00am

Artificial Intelligence (AI) refers to a set of techniques that rely primarily on the data itself for the construction of a quantitative model. AI has arguably been in development for three quarters of a century, but there has been a recent resurgence in research and application. This current (third) wave of AI progress is marked by extraordinary results --- for example, in image analysis, language translation, and machine automation. Despite the aforementioned modest definition of AI, its potential to disrupt technologies, economies, and society is often presented as (nearly) unmatched in modern times, due in part to the versatility of the algorithms in modeling a wide variety of data. Similarly, there is great promise for applications across the sciences --- for example, simulations, image classification, and automated experimentation --- which are currently being investigated by researchers across the globe. Along with the significant promise of AI, comes great peril: in societal contexts, the consequences include enhanced surveillance, facial recognition, and automated weaponry. In science contexts, the issues are also significant and in many cases related --- for example, bias, lack of uncertainty quantification, and misuse. To take full advantage of the opportunities for AI to accelerate science and improve society, it's essential that we carefully guide its development.

During this presentation, we will explore modern AI techniques, like neural networks, and review how they are being developed and deployed in astronomy. Then, we’ll discuss ideas for the future usage of AI in science, including technical barriers for long-term application. Finally, we’ll discuss the roles of scientists and academic communities in the development of AI algorithms.

Bio elements

  • Dr. Brian Nord’s work focuses on how to improve the ways in which we make scientific discoveries --- developing algorithms, designing experiments, and re-envisioning research communities.  Brian started his career in large-scale structure simulations. Since then, he has studied galaxy clusters, strong gravitational lensing, and the cosmic microwave background. More recently, he has explored the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to address critical challenges in cosmological data analysis. Currently, he is integrating AI with rigorous statistical methods and using this to aid in the precise design of scientific experiments. 
  • Brian is a leader in the movement to address inequities and oppression in academic and research environments. He co-created the academic #Strike4BlackLives ( in June 2020 and works to drive anti-racist efforts and develop justice-oriented communities. He co-founded the Deep Skies Community (, which is dedicated to shared leadership and prioritizing the humanity of research colleagues over productivity --- one of the first of its kind. He is a co-author of, a curriculum for learning about Black experiences. He also co-founded the Change Now team, which produced a list of calls for action to make a more just laboratory environment at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
  • As a researcher in the Fermilab AI Project Office and Cosmic Physics Center, he provides strategic vision to the lab with respect to AI research investments. He has a joint appointment at the University Chicago, where he also conducts his AI research and anti-racist community-building, as well as mentors students.
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