MIT creates college for AI

Starting next year, the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will be housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (above).
Starting next year, the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will be housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (above).PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has come up with an institution focusing on artificial intelligence

NEW YORK • Every major university is wrestling with how to adapt to the technological wave of artificial intelligence (AI) - how to prepare students not only to harness the powerful tools of AI, but also to thoughtfully weigh its ethical and social implications.

AI courses, conferences and joint majors have proliferated in the past few years.

But the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is taking a particularly ambitious step, creating a new college backed by a planned investment of US$1 billion (S$1.38 billion).

Two-thirds of the funds have already been raised, MIT said, in announcing the initiative on Monday.

The linchpin gift of US$350 million came from Mr Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive officer of the Blackstone Group, the big private equity firm.

The college, called the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, will create 50 new faculty positions and many more fellowships for graduate students.

It is scheduled to begin in the autumn semester next year, housed in other buildings, before moving into its own new space in 2022.


The goal of the college, said Dr L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT, is to "educate the bilinguals of the future".

He defines bilinguals as people in fields such as biology, chemistry, politics, history and linguistics who are also skilled in the techniques of modern computing that can be applied to them.

But, he said, "to educate bilinguals, we have to create a new structure".

Academic departments still tend to be silos, Dr Reif explained, despite interdisciplinary programmes that cross the departmental boundaries.

Half the 50 faculty positions will focus on advancing computer science, while the other half will be jointly appointed by the college and other departments across MIT.

Traditionally, departments hold sway in hiring and tenure decisions at universities.

So, for example, a researcher who applied AI-based text analysis tools in a field like history might be regarded as too much a computer scientist by the humanities department and not sufficiently technical by the computer science department.

MIT's leaders hope the new college will alter traditional academic thinking and practice.

"We need to rewire how we hire and promote faculty," said Dr Martin Schmidt, provost of MIT.

Today, most dual-major programmes involve taking courses in a computer science department in machine learning or data science in addition to a student's major.

The MIT college is an effort to have computing baked into the curriculum rather than stapled on. It will grant degrees, although what they will be or their names have not been determined.

That appealed to Dr Melissa Nobles, dean of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, who said she saw the new college as helping non-computer scientists bring AI tools to their fields - "to what they really care about".

The college, Dr Nobles said, offers the possibility of a renewal for humanities studies at MIT, where students flock to computer science and engineering.

"We're excited by the possibilities," she said. "That's how the humanities are going to survive, not by running from the future, but by embracing it."

Donors, like students, are attracted more to computer science programmes than to many other disciplines. But the new college at MIT is designed to spread the wealth.

"It's a major fund-raising mechanism that gives MIT a huge resource to apply AI to other fields," said Mr Eric Schmidt, who was the executive chairman of Alphabet, parent company of Google, and is a visiting innovation fellow at MIT.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2018, with the headline 'MIT creates college for AI'. Print Edition | Subscribe