The AI Arms Race Is Coming to a University Near You

Nat Rubio-Licht
Nat Rubio-Licht is a freelance reporter with dot.LA. They previously worked at Protocol writing the Source Code newsletter and at the L.A. Business Journal covering tech and aerospace. They can be reached at nat@dot.la.
AI robots in college
Evan Xie

As AI takes over the tech sector and beyond, universities across the country have received and invested millions in AI-related research over the past several months.

Last Thursday, the University of Southern California became the latest institution to capitalize on the AI buzz. The university announced that it’s investing $10 million in seed funding into launching the Center for Generative AI and Society. The investment will fund research specifically into “ethical use and innovation of generative AI” and how it intersects with different industries, the school said in its announcement. The center will be co-led by USC media professor Holly Willis and computer science research professor Bill Swartout.


“USC is uniquely positioned to understand and influence how this emerging technology is changing the ways we live, work, and play,” USC President Carol Folt said in a statement. “Our 22 schools are long standing leaders in fields like the creative arts, media, health, education, engineering, and business.”

The center is part of Folt’s “moonshot” initiatives, or long term investments which aim to strengthen the university’s computing research and development, Ishwar K. Puri, senior vice president of research and innovation at USC, told Dot.LA. The “Frontiers of Computing” moonshot which the center is a part of is funded by a more than $260 million donation from the Lord Foundation, a nonprofit fund created following the $1 billion sale of Lord Corporation, a manufacturing company, in 2019.

Not surprisingly, it was major STEM schools who started pouring money into AI early: In 2017 Stanford and UC Berkeley launched AI research centers. A year later, MIT followed suit.

Over the past year, these types of programs have only ramped up at universities across the U.S. University of Texas got $1 million from the The MITRE Corp. last summer to study biased algorithms and disinformation in AI; Auburn University’s provost office invested $2 million to hire AI faculty and develop computational infrastructure for AI research; and University of Washington got $10 million from Boeing for an AI-focused educational space.

In Los Angeles, UCLA’s engineering school got a piece of $26 million in funding last year from a slew of VCs for its “Break Through Tech” AI hub, meant to expand AI education to students from underserved groups.

“AI spans just about everything that we do right now,” Puri told Dot.LA. “It's on everyone's mind. And universities are forging ahead with investments.”

These institutions are marching ahead at the same quick pace as startups, investors and the U.S. government. Valuations of privately-owned AI companies reached $2.2 trillion in 2022, a 16% uptick from the previous year, and VC investment for generative AI specifically rose 27% that year-over-year in 2022 to $1.4 billion. Meanwhile, a White House-led task force released a report in early February calling on Congress to invest $2.6 billion over the next six years to build out AI resources. And last week, President Joe Biden earmarked an additional $2 billion for the National Science Foundation for AI and quantum computing research in his budget proposal released last week.

While many institutions, investors and companies are pouring money and time into researching the tech itself, Puri said what set’s USC’s new center apart is its focus on AI’s broader impacts.

Puri said that Folt didn’t want the center to be a “me too” investment meant solely to join the likes of other universities experimenting with AI. Rather, the goal of the center is to investigate the tech “from the lens of how it applies to human beings.” The first initiatives the center will focus on are generative AI’s effects on arts, culture and media, as well as the tech’s impact on education.

“How does (AI) apply to a journalist? How does it apply to a filmmaker? How does it apply to a teacher?” said Puri. “Our focus is not only to improve the algorithms behind AI, but also to provide applications and solutions for real constituencies, real human beings, real demographics in mind.”

And while USC’s new center might seem like a drop in the research bucket, Puri said USC is poised to be a frontrunner in research around generative AI and its ethics because of its broad focus. The center plans to work with disciplines across campus, including USC’s journalism, film, education, arts and entrepreneurship programs.

“I would say that what we are doing is very special, and it can only be done at USC,” said Puri. “USC has one of the most diverse educational bodies in terms of disciplines. When those disciplines start talking to each other, that's the time for the most remarkable and enjoyable collisions that produce the solutions for tomorrow.”

nat@dot.la
🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures
Image Source: Tinder

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Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

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  • Penguin Random House agreed to acquire comic book publisher Boom! Studios from backers like Walt Disney Co. - learn more

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Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

Focus: Industry Agnostic, AI/Robotics, Consumer, Clean Energy

Notable Past Companies: Lumin, Coinbase, Tenor


Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

Focus: Industry Agnostic, Connection to South LA and related communities

Notable Past Companies: ChargerHelp, Peadbo


Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

Location: Westwood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Health Care, Health Diagnostics, Medical Device

Notable Past Companies: Zeto, Genetesis


KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

Location: East Hollywood

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed, early stage

Focus: Pediatric Health Care Innovation

Notable Past Companies: Smileyscope, Zocalo Health


Disney Accelerator

Disney Accelerator is a startup accelerator that provides early-stage companies in the consumer media, entertainment and technology sectors with mentorship, guidance, and investment from Disney executives. The program, now in its 10th year, aims to foster collaborations and partnerships between innovative technology companies and The Walt Disney Company to help them accelerate their growth and bring new experiences to Disney audiences.

Location: Burbank

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Technology and entertainment

Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

Notable Past Companies: Pixxel, Morpheus Space



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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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