Illinois Tech Shapes Future as AI Leader with New Degrees

B.S., M.S. AI Degree Offerings Complement University’s Strong Assets

February 26, 2019

Leaders and faculty at Illinois Institute of Technology are welcoming a future with artificial intelligence, positioning the university as a star player in the field.

All the tools and resources needed to become a leader in AI research are at Illinois Tech, and the Board of Trustees added to those resources, approving B.S. and M.A.S. degree programs in artificial intelligence at its February 7 meeting. 

Although the degree programs were just approved, the university has already offered artificial intelligence courses, like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Computer Vision, and Robotics. Meanwhile, faculty and students have been implementing AI in a variety of research projects across disciplines.

Faculty at the Department of Computer Science have been collecting myriad requests from all across the university asking about current AI research, how AI could aid them in their own research, or who can help them to incorporate AI into their research and studies. In response, the department hosted AI@Illinois Tech Collaboration Day on January 25 to bring people together, to talk about how AI is used in their own research, and to discuss how to collaborate in the future. It kicked off the larger AI initiative out of the Active Computational Thinking Center (ACT) in computer science.

“AI is being used all over Illinois Tech,” says Anita Nikolich, a visiting fellow at the computer science department. “They’re all looking for collaborators or tools, and we’re here to help them narrow that search.”

Roughly 120 people from 19 different departments converged at The McCormick Tribune Campus Center, showing how AI is becoming ubiquitous across campus. They assembled to share their ideas about how to implement the technology, see how others are using it, and learn how to use it more effectively.

Some uninitiated to AI came just to learn more about the technology that more and more people are using. 

“It is difficult to define what AI is,” says Mustafa Bilgic, associate professor of computer science. “Some think it is just machine learning; some think it is just statistics. Well, it is a bit of everything, really; AI is truly a multidisciplinary field, drawing from statistics, biology, philosophy, computer science, you name it.” 

Since there are so many ideas about what AI is and what it can do, people from all disciplines on campus understand it can make a significant impact in their field of study. According to brief lightning talks during the day’s activities, AI is being used in a variety of fields from aerospace and mechanical engineering to architecture to chemistry.

Not only is Illinois Tech working to take a leading role in AI research and development, but also engaging to build a strong ethical base as to how AI can and should be used.

“Everybody—government, industry—has data and want to use AI to analyze the data,” Bilgic says. “Unfortunately, there is this misconception that AI systems are unbiased because they are simply crunching numbers and they don’t have emotions. Well, AI systems are as biased as the data that they are trained on. So some of the issues we’re looking at are fairness, accountability, and transparency.”

Nikolich agrees, adding that preparation is needed to combat those who decide to use the technology for nefarious purposes.

“Nobody wants to talk about the worst possible scenarios, but those questions have to be asked,” she says. “They’re difficult questions, but they can’t be ignored.”

Most attending the forum agree that all the components needed to be a guiding force in AI can be found at Illinois Tech, and adding the degree programs will attract more bright minds to contribute to the discussion.

“We have all the elements right here,” says Ankit Srivastava, associate professor of mechanical, materials, and aerospace engineering. “The University of Chicago would kill for our engineering program. Engineering schools would kill for our design program.”

Combine the strengths of those programs with Illinois Tech’s computer science department and the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, and the university is well equipped to help shape the future of AI development.

AI@IllinoisTech Collaboration Day is just the start. Bilgic says more AI summits are anticipated on campus in the near future that will expand the school’s influence, with the hope of including other university and industry leaders.

“This is just the initial event,” he says. “We’re planning our next to be Chicago-wide, inviting other schools and industry, or maybe even Midwest-wide.”

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