Pitt should expand artificial intelligence program


(Illustration by Sylvia Freeman | For The Pitt News)

By Janine Faust | Opinions Editor

Pitt announced Monday morning a new institute that will bring researchers together to utilize computational skills — including artificial intelligence — to take a closer look at and possibly offer solutions to issues like the opioid epidemic and climate change.

The announcement came less than two weeks after Carnegie Mellon University — a major AI school — revealed it would start accepting students for enrollment in America’s first undergraduate degree in AI this fall.

The Modeling and Managing Complicated Systems Institute is a strong move for Pitt — not just because it could help address world hunger and disease. AI as a field is evolving rapidly and other universities are doing their best to keep up with it — with CMU taking the most dramatic step yet.

Pitt does have options beside MoMaCS for researchers here to study AI. Pitt graduate students can pursue a Masters of Science in Intelligent Systems degree, and Pitt’s undergraduate computer science major offers a concentration in AI. But it would be better for both Pitt and its students if there were an undergraduate major dedicated to the field.

AI also presents endless opportunities for Pitt to align itself with influential outside groups. AI work is applicable in many different fields and employers are desperate for people skilled in it. Other universities — not just CMU — are rapidly developing new curriculums surrounding it.

And AI has exploded worldwide both in the private and public sectors. Big-name companies have embraced the technology, like Amazon’s AI-driven Alexa voice program. France recently unveiled a national strategy for developing AI technology, and China and the European Union have taken similar measures.

An undergraduate AI program at Pitt would bring more opportunities for partnerships with large companies and allow students to learn skills that could land them work in a company or in government. Facebook recently set up an AI research lab in Pittsburgh with CMU robotics experts at the helm — an action which will no doubt draw upon student talent in the future.

AI would also increase job prospects for students because it’s applicable to nearly every field. Major media organizations rely on AI — like USA Today’s use of AI to make videos, and The Washington Post, which uses its own AI tech to write reports and alerts.

AI is also breaking into the health care industry, where new developments with AI will assist doctors in choosing treatments and performing surgeries. It is used in the creation and evolution of self-driving vehicles — Honda recently paired up with leading AI startup SenseTime in this endeavor. An undergraduate degree or minor in AI at Pitt would allow students a diversity of job prospects after college.  

Pittsburgh itself has become a hub for AI. Argo AI, which is working on developing autonomous vehicles able to navigate city streets, is headquartered in the Strip District. Organizations like Marinus Analytics, a CMU-affiliated startup, utilize AI and data to investigate sex trafficking activities.

Other universities have already taken the initiative to further undergraduate involvement in AI — UNC Charlotte now offers a minor in AI for non-computer science majors. Dozens of other universities have begun undergraduate computer engineering degrees with concentrations and tracks in AI — the Milwaukee School of Engineering just announced the creation of one in January. If Pitt wants to stay ahead of the curve, creating a minor like UNC or even eventually developing a major like CMU would be the best direction to head in.  

And if Pitt invests in undergraduate AI studies, its students will have more specialized skills upon graduation. Fewer than 10,000 people in the world have the skill set to conduct important AI research, according to technology and consulting firm Element AI. This shortage has led to salaries of between $300,000 to $500,000 for AI specialists.

Pitt’s AI research and its graduate program are great — but if the school wants to be on the forefront of cutting-edge research, the program has to expand.

While Pitt is not as deeply entrenched in AI as its Oakland neighbor is, it still has the tools to reach CMU’s level. Pitt already offers several AI courses, like Foundations of Artificial Intelligence and Human Language Technologies. And with developments like the MoMaCS institute, Pitt may begin to attract more professionals with skills in AI who could create and teach more courses. It’s foolish to expect Pitt to suddenly spring forth with a minor or major in the next year, but it can begin taking steps in that direction now.

AI as a field is evolving rapidly — and the best way for Pitt to make a name for itself and support its students is to evolve with it.

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