M.I.T. Plans to Invest $1 Billion In New College for AI

October 25, 2018 - 7 minutes read

Countries and companies around the world are racing to leverage the profound capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, many of them have even given themselves deadlines. For example, China would like to be a world leader in AI by 2025.

The Boston-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is throwing its hat into the ring by establishing a new school dedicated to AI education. MIT is investing $1 billion into their endeavor to create America’s first AI college. So far, the institution has already raised 2/3 of the $1 billion required.

Pushing for Sooner Rather Than Later

One of the biggest donors, Stephen A. Schwarzman, gifted MIT $350 million. Schwarzman is the CEO of the Blackstone Group, a firm specializing in private equity. The gift will earn him the new AI college’s name; it’ll be called the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, and the building will house 50 new professors and plenty more students.

This isn’t a project set to launch in five or ten years, however; MIT plans to start classes all over campus beginning next fall until the college’s own building finishes construction in 2022.

L. Rafael Reif is MIT’s president. He says the new college’s goal is to “educate the bilinguals of the future”, referring to people studying non-computer science fields like literature, chemistry, and politics who also know that computing principles could be applied to their studies. But, “to educate bilinguals, we have to create a new structure,” says Reif.

Reif explains that college departments often stifle students who have a variety of interests. For example, a student studying politics with a computer science focus might be seen by politics department members as too much of a computer scientist, while computer science department heads might view that student as lacking technical skills.

Addressing an Institutional Issue

To help amend this problem, Reif ensured that the new college would have half computer science professors and half professors from the other colleges across MIT’s catalog.

Additionally, Martin Schmidt, MIT’s provost, says, some of the problems lie in “how we hire and promote faculty.” And while most double-major programs have students take a few computer science courses, this new college will focus on a more even split among the two programs of study.

Melissa Nobles is the dean at MIT’s School of Humanities. She says she sees the potential in letting non-computer science students bring AI “to what they really care about.”

Nobles also hopes it will spark a resurgence in students wanting to study the humanities and arts at a school mostly renowned for its reputation in technology. She says, “We’re excited by the possibilities. That’s how the humanities are going to survive, not by running from the future but by embracing it.”

A New Type of Education

Eric Schmidt, a former executive chairman at Alphabet and a visiting MIT innovation fellow spoke about how the new college’s investment would pay off in dividends. He says, “It’s a major fund-raising mechanism that gives M.I.T. a huge resource to apply AI to other fields.”

Schwarzman and Reif were instrumental in formulating the college’s goals; the two met in 2015 because Schwarzman was creating the Schwarzman Scholars scholarship program for young people to learn more about China.

Schwarzman had spoken with Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, about AI’s potential and challenges. Schwarzman says, “I became convinced that this technology was so powerful it was really going to remake a lot of the world as we know it.”

Whenever Schwarzman and Reif met up over the years, they spoke at length about AI’s future and possible impacts on humanity and the world. It was only natural that Schwarzman and Reif would work together to create a new AI school for intellectuals specializing in a humanities or arts track.

The Future is Bright

When Schwarzman heard that MIT was trying to figure out how to incorporate AI into the university’s future, he immediately contacted Reif and said more should be done than small projects or initiatives. Schwarzman spoke to Reif about AI’s impact on job security, decision-making in life-or-death situations, and the lack of a solid ethics plan in AI.

Schwarzman said he emphasized that “we really need to try to understand this technology, not just get hit by it.” When Reif said he wanted to involve every student at MIT, he wanted to “make sure these tools are used by everyone in every discipline.” And a new college seemed to answer this call.

Schwarzman expressed interest in contributing and was even taken aback when Reif asked for the $350 million investment. Schwarzman recalls admitting, “Well, that is a big number.” After considering it, he accepted the donation request.

For Schwarzman, if the new college at MIT propels other colleges to do the same, it’s been a success. Schwarzman cites China’s gain in AI and the federal government’s interest in funding AI projects, stating he thinks “we’ve been lagging, for whatever reason,” but that this is a step in the right direction.

As AI develops into a more established field, we can’t ignore that the U.S. is seriously lacking a formal introduction to the technology, especially for young people wanting to help fix the talent shortage in AI, machine learning, and data science. What do you think about how MIT’s appointing its faculty positions for the new AI college? What’s the best way to close the knowledge gap and talent shortage in AI?

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