Mario Peng Lee seeks to improve lives through technology

Published: June 5, 2024
Portrait of Mario Peng Lee with building and computer screens in backgroundMario Peng Lee and fellow Bruins founded AI Safety at UCLA, a student research community that increases awareness and critical thinking about AI’s ethical and safety implications. (Photo illustration Tina Hordzwick/UCLA)

Lucy Berbeo | June 5, 2024

The adage “with great power comes great responsibility” may have been popularized through the Spider-Man franchise, but in the world of artificial intelligence ethics, it’s a watchword. For UCLA undergraduate student Mario Peng Lee, it is a guiding principle.

Peng was 9 years old when he began to recognize the power and pitfalls of AI. Already fluent in three languages — he was born in Chile to Taiwanese parents and raised in China, Taiwan and Argentina — he used his first laptop to experiment with the then-newly launched Google Translate.

“I would play around, translating something from Spanish to Chinese to English, then back to Chinese and back to Spanish, and it would end up as a completely different sentence,” said Peng, who is set to earn two bachelor’s degrees this June, with a laugh. “So why does that happen? Those are the kinds of questions that led me to pursue the path I’m on now.”

Peng followed his passion to prolific ends, majoring in linguistics and computer science with a second major in psychology and a minor in data science engineering. A student in UCLA’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program and editor at the UCLA Undergraduate Research Journal of Psychology, he conducted research across three labs focused on applying AI and machine learning to natural language processing and understanding.

His scholarly impact has been immediate: Multiple universities utilize the Diverse Names Generator, a project he co-created that provides randomly selected proper names for example sentences in classroom settings; the resource is the first of its kind to help users overcome unconscious bias that may lead them to default to using Anglophone, male-gendered names. A paper he co-wrote on the project’s findings, published in the Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America, earned him the linguistics department’s Undergraduate Research and Travel Award.

Increasing awareness and critical thinking about AI’s ethical and safety implications is paramount, Peng says. So in 2022, he and his friends founded the student research community AI Safety at UCLA. Peng and fellow organizers, who received funding from Open Philanthropy to offer an introductory fellowship to participating students, created their own syllabus and spent hours each week teaching fellow undergraduates about these topics. The group, which grew to 100 members within one year of its founding, has inspired many student-directed projects and created what Peng calls “an incubator of ideas.”

“The power that AI has is truly transformative, and many experts believe it’s going to be a leap greater than the Second Industrial Revolution — humanity before and after AI,” Peng said. “And the idea is that we have to make that transition as smooth as possible, without compromising humanity’s well-being. It’s very easy to create AI for profit; it’s harder to create something that’s both impactful and has a good purpose.”

Portrait of Mario Peng Lee
Peng is completing one major in linguistics and computer science, a second major in psychology and a minor in data science engineering. (Photo courtesy of Mario Peng Lee)

While a lifelong love of video games initially sparked Peng’s interest in technology and programming, living in disparate parts of the world drove his curiosity about people, language and culture — and his awareness of the digital divide.

“I lived in more advanced countries like China, where when I was very little — around the year 2000 — we already had computers in the classroom. And when I went back to Argentina, we barely had a fan,” he said. “I saw what a privilege technology is and how it can facilitate people’s lives.”

At his technical engineering high school in Buenos Aires, Peng was the sole graduating senior in his class to apply to U.S. colleges. Without mentors or resources to help him navigate the application process, he turned to Google and watched YouTube videos to figure it out himself. But his journey to UCLA came with even greater challenges. Peng matriculated in 2020 and, when the COVID-19 lockdown hit while he was traveling in Hong Kong, he was forced to spend the next two years there in quarantine.

“I was a very extroverted person back in Argentina — I thrived on social connections — and being quarantined was really hard for me and my mental health,” he said. “So when I came to UCLA, I basically tried to gain back everything I felt I’d lost.”

That pandemic experience led him to redefine his core values and purpose in the world, and at UCLA, he found opportunities to be boundless. Along with his academic and community-building endeavors, he’s also a full-stack developer with LA Blueprint, a student-run nonprofit focused on creating and promoting “tech for social good” in collaboration with local nonprofits.

After graduation, Peng plans to pursue various entrepreneurial projects of his own, which he’s begun to incubate and launch during his time as a student, including an app centered on promoting mental health. His tech projects share one thing in common: They are meant to help people and improve lives.

“We can’t stop the progress of technology,” Peng said. “That’s my philosophy. So instead of trying to stop it, we need to channel it, redirect it, to a more positive end.”