MIT Raises $650M for New College to Advance A.I. With Eye on Ethics

Xconomy Boston — 

MIT is making another significant investment in artificial intelligence. The Institute announced Monday that it will establish a new college on its Cambridge, MA, campus—the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing—that will serve as an interdisciplinary hub for advancing ideas in computer science, artificial intelligence, data science, and related fields.

The college is getting off the ground thanks to a $350 million gift from Schwarzman, the co-founder, CEO, and chairman of global asset management firm Blackstone. MIT said it has raised an additional $300 million for the college, with a goal of raising $350 million more. MIT claims the potentially $1 billion initiative will be the largest single investment in computing and A.I. by an American academic institution.

The effort aims to help drive advances in A.I. and related technologies, while training the creators of these potentially powerful tools to shape them in an ethical and responsible way. The backdrop is that A.I. technologies are increasingly impacting our everyday lives, but there are concerns about the (sometimes unintended) consequences, such as biases getting baked into algorithms and automation replacing human jobs. MIT said it wants to “reorient” itself to “bring the power of computing and A.I. to all fields of study” on campus, the idea being that those technologies would also benefit from the influence of other disciplines.

“The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will constitute both a global center for computing research and education, and an intellectual foundry for powerful new A.I. tools,” MIT president Rafael Reif said in a prepared statement. “Just as important, the college will equip students and researchers in any discipline to use computing and A.I. to advance their disciplines and vice-versa, as well as to think critically about the human impact of their work.”

MIT has made A.I. a key focus area, an effort that has accelerated over the past year. In September 2017, it formed a joint A.I. research lab with IBM (NYSE: IBM); IBM is pouring $240 million into the initiative over the next 10 years. And in February, MIT announced it intended to raise “hundreds of millions of dollars” for MIT Intelligence Quest, or MIT IQ, a long-term, wide-ranging initiative aimed at better understanding human intelligence in order to deliver A.I. breakthroughs that could advance society.

Other universities around the world are also stepping up their investments in A.I., often in partnership with industry. In August, the University of Toronto signed a five-year, multi-million dollar A.I. research partnership with LG Electronics. Elsewhere in Canada, the University of Montreal established an A.I. lab on campus with Samsung Electronics last year. In the U.S., Carnegie Mellon University launched an initiative last year to unify its A.I. efforts; the Pittsburgh school has since created an A.I. bachelor’s degree, received an $8 million A.I. research investment from Germany-based Bosch Group, and established an A.I. lab with Bosch, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Toyota Research Institute has established A.I. and robotics labs with Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and MIT.

And MIT isn’t the only Cambridge university to receive A.I.-focused funding from Schwarzman. Earlier this year, he gave $5 million to Harvard Business School to help develop “case studies and other programming that explore the implications of A.I. on industries and business,” MIT said.

MIT’s new computing college is expected to launch in September 2019, and it will construct a new building intended to open in 2022, according to Monday’s announcement. It will create 50 new faculty positions, half of which will focus on the college and half that will be appointed jointly in the college and other departments across campus. That will nearly double MIT’s “academic capability in computing and A.I.,” the Institute said. A search for the new college’s first dean will begin soon.

One of the questions is how smoothly this restructuring of MIT’s computing and A.I. education and research efforts will go. It will be worth watching how the new college fits with long-standing campus groups, such as the 15-year-old Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), MIT’s largest lab. Another question is whether the new college will spur more MIT students, faculty, and staff to start A.I. businesses; venture capitalists and established tech companies will likely be watching closely.