MIT plans college for artificial intelligence, backed by $1 billion

MIT is taking a particularly ambitious step in preparing students to develop, and consider the implications of, artificial intelligence by planning to create a new college.

The Great Dome building on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Oct. 12, 2018.
The Great Dome building on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Oct. 12, 2018. –Cody O'Loughlin / The New York Times

Every major university is wrestling with how to adapt to the technology wave of artificial intelligence — 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 last few years.

But the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is taking a particularly ambitious step, creating a new college backed by a planned investment of $1 billion. Two-thirds of the funds have already been raised, MIT said, in announcing the initiative Monday.

The linchpin gift of $350 million came from Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive 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.

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

The goal of the college, said L. Rafael Reif, the president of MIT, is to “educate the bilinguals of the future.” He defines bilinguals as people in fields like 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, Reif explained, despite interdisciplinary programs that cross the departmental boundaries. Half the 50 faculty positions will focus on advancing computer science, and the other half will be jointly appointed by the college and by 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 Martin Schmidt, the provost of MIT.

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Today, most dual-major programs 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, though what they will be or their names have not been determined.

That appealed to 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, 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 programs than to many other disciplines. But the new college at MIT is designed to spread the wealth.

“It’s a major fundraising mechanism that gives MIT a huge resource to apply AI to other fields,” said Eric Schmidt, who was the executive chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and is a visiting innovation fellow at MIT.

Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of Blackstone, at the private equity firm’s headquarters in New York, April 17, 2013. —Todd Heisler / The New York Times

The college and its goals were shaped by a long-running conversation between Schwarzman, the principal donor, and Reif, the MIT president. They first met in 2015 when Schwarzman was setting up the Schwarzman Scholars program, which awards scholarships for young people to gain a greater understanding of China.

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At the time, Schwarzman was becoming increasingly fascinated by the debate over the opportunity and challenge presented by artificial intelligence. A lengthy conversation with Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, piqued his interest, Schwarzman recalled, and he kept talking to experts and reading.

“I became convinced that this technology was so powerful it was really going to remake a lot of the world as we know it,” he said.

Over the next few years, Schwarzman and Reif picked up the conversation about the trajectory of AI and its broad impact, when their paths crossed in places like New York and Davos, Switzerland.

Over the past year, MIT’s leaders and faculty were brainstorming to chart a course for the university’s future. The university had done individual initiatives in areas like the future of work and a research project on the human and machine intelligence.

But Schwarzman urged Reif to go further, emphasizing the ethical issues raised by automated decision-making in everything from medical diagnosis to self-driving cars. He also stressed the workplace impact.

“We really need to try to understand this technology, not just get hit by it,” Schwarzman said.

Meanwhile, Reif was also focused on making a universitywide impact. His persistent question: “How do I make sure these tools are used by everyone in every discipline?”

The new college structure was his answer. Schwarzman said he would be interested in contributing, and soon after, Reif made his pitch.

“Well, that is a big number,” Schwarzman said, recalling his initial reaction.

After further study, he said yes.

Schwarzman said he hoped that the MIT move might trigger others to invest in America’s AI future, not just commercially. He points to the major push the Chinese government is making, and notes the fruits of U.S. government-funded research in the past — technologies that helped America take the global lead in industries from the personal computer to the internet.

“I think we’ve been lagging, for whatever reason,” Schwarzman said.