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.”
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