In 2011, Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen penned a widely read essay declaring that “software is eating the world.” If he were to write an updated version today, it might proclaim that machine learning is eating the world.
Advances in data analytics and artificial intelligence technologies are starting to impact virtually every industry. In the coming years, A.I. could transform society in ways we don’t yet fully understand. Companies are investing heavily in A.I. to try and stay ahead of the curve, and so are universities.
MIT on Monday announced one of the biggest A.I. efforts to date by a higher education institution: a potentially $1 billion initiative to create a new College of Computing, which will serve as the focal point for the university’s A.I. education and research efforts. MIT said it has raised $650 million so far, including $350 million from Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, for whom the college will be named.
The project represents the biggest “structural change” to MIT since the early 1950s, the Institute said. MIT plans to hire 50 new faculty members for the college, half of which will have joint appointments in other departments across campus. The idea is that A.I. will influence nearly every field, and that such technologies can also benefit from the influence of other disciplines.
“They’re leading the way that all universities are going to end up having to follow, which is every discipline now is going to have data and algorithms or intelligence as part of what it does,” said Mark Gorenberg, a member of MIT’s board of trustees and the founder and managing director of Zetta Venture Partners, a Bay Area venture firm that backs “intelligent enterprise software” startups.
Gorenberg said more than 1,000 students a year are taking machine learning courses at MIT, and more than half of them are getting degrees in something other than computer science.
“I think the future of work is going to require people to understand both their discipline and also data and machine learning,” Gorenberg said.
Here are three other takeaways from MIT’s announcement:
1. It’s all about talent.
MIT is already a leading hub of A.I. innovation, but the competition for the brightest students, faculty, and researchers is fierce. Raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the new college—as well as for a related initiative, MIT Intelligence Quest—could help the Cambridge, MA, school cement its place in the upper echelon of global A.I. education and research centers.
“This initiative makes a statement that MIT is where you want to bet your future,” said Krishna Gupta, an MIT alum and managing partner with Boston-based venture firm Romulus Capital, in an e-mail to Xconomy. “It’s all about talent.”
The A.I. industry says it’s dealing with a shortage of talent, and business leaders hope the new college will help address that problem. A 2017 report from Chinese tech giant Tencent estimated there are currently 300,000 A.I. “researchers and practitioners” around the world, but the report concluded that there’s enough demand for millions, according to an article by The Verge.
“The talent gap when it comes to A.I. is very real, so we are encouraged that MIT is working to close it,” said Heather Ames Versace, co-founder and chief operating officer of Boston-based A.I. software startup Neurala, in an e-mailed statement. “We need a broader spectrum of people working in A.I., and hope to see other organizations, from academic institutions to government to the enterprise, following MIT’s lead.”
2. The new college could help unify MIT’s A.I. research and commercialization efforts.
It remains to be seen how well the new college will integrate with existing MIT groups working on A.I., including Intelligence Quest, MIT Media Lab, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and a joint research lab with IBM. But multiple observers told Xconomy they expect—or at least hope—it will align and strengthen the various initiatives.
Rudina Seseri, a managing partner at Boston-based A.I. venture firm Glasswing Ventures, sees the college as complementary to those other groups. It could leverage MIT’s research “in new ways, natively integrating A.I. and computing potential across fields,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
Gupta said he thinks “existing efforts have been more fragmented than they should be.”
“I am hoping this new college will pull everything together in a cohesive manner,” he said. “I know plenty of people around MIT are hungry to re-establish the Institute’s leadership in this domain.”
3. Ethics are an increasingly important component of A.I. education.
MIT said the new college will emphasize training the creators of potentially powerful A.I. tools to shape them in an ethical and responsible way, with the possible human impact in mind. That hasn’t always been part of the educational strategy in A.I. programs, although MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and other universities have started to make it a stronger focus in the past couple of years.
“When I studied computer science, I never studied the ethical side of technology—no one did,” said Affectiva CEO and co-founder Rana el Kaliouby in an e-mailed statement. She was a post-doctoral researcher at MIT and previously studied at The American University in Cairo and the University of Cambridge in the U.K. in the 1990s and 2000s. “But today, I believe it’s crucial to take a holistic approach to A.I.—not just educating students on computing and engineering, but ethics, human rights, and the economic side of things as well.”
MIT’s new A.I. initiative comes at a crucial juncture for the industry, said el Kaliouby, whose startup develops A.I. software intended to help machines recognize human emotions and adapt their behavior accordingly.
“As A.I. takes on more roles in society—especially roles that were traditionally held by humans—we’re now forging a new social contract between humans and A.I., in which two-way trust is really critical,” el Kaliouby said.