The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced this week that it would invest $1 billion in a new college of computer engineering: the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. It’s the single largest investment in artificial intelligence (AI) by a U.S. academic institution to date. And when the new building hosts its first classes in 2022, it’ll be the largest structural addition to MIT’s campus since the 1950s.
But MIT isn’t the only university channeling funds toward AI education.
Yet another AI-forward institution of note is Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which partnered with Bosch’s Center for Artificial Intelligence on an $8 million research project that goes through 2023. CMU has the additional distinction of being the first university to offer an undergraduate degree in AI, and it neighbors the ARM Institute, a $250 million initiative focused on accelerating the advancement of transformative robotics technologies and education in the U.S. manufacturing industry.
This week, I participated in a tour of startups in Pittsburgh’s blossoming robotics and automation industry, the majority of which draw on CMU not just for funding, but for expertise. Since 2008, 176 companies in the Pittsburgh area were indirectly or directly founded by faculty, students, and staff, and more than 100 of them have licensed CMU-owned intellectual property through CTTEC, Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation.
They’ve achieved a lot over the past few years. The 288 startups created since 2008 have raised more than $1 billion in venture capital, and the computer science graduates they employ on average make $120,000 — the highest in the country (and $15,000 higher than MIT).
There’s a palpable passion for entrepreneurship at CMU and in Pittsburgh. That much was clear from conversations with Howie Choset, professor of robotics and cofounder of medical device company Medrobotics, and William Whittaker, a research professor at CMU’s Robotics Institute and winner of DARPA’s 2007 Grand Challenge, a competition for autonomous vehicles.
“Pittsburgh [and CMU] is a magnet for talent in robotics,” Choset said. “The people here work hard and solve grounded problems — real problems. CMU’s [robotics lab] has deployed all over the world — working with the Red Cross in Mexico City to clear out buildings, doing archaeology in Egypt, conducting surgeries in Prague, performing nuclear inspections in Austria, assisting Chevron [in] pipes inspection … you name it.”
He’s not kidding about the “magnet” bit: CMU’s School of Computer Science has about 1,000 students and 300 faculty members, according to Whittaker.
“When I was looking for [a town] to settle down in, I wanted a place with a good technical base … that was a melting pot — people could come from anywhere — and a town that had built industries,” Whittaker said. “I was looking for work ethic in a town.”
Pittsburgh — and by extension, CMU — certainly has that. Area robotics and AI startups including Bossa Nova Robotics, RE2 Robotics, and Astrobotic have attracted over $325 million in investment in 2017, and automation and AI companies in the region have generated close to $850 million in exit values in just the past five years.
“It’s always been my experience that people from Pittsburgh have a can-do attitude,” said John Bares, president and CEO of Carnegie Robotics (a CMU National Robotics Engineering Center sensor and components spinout). “It’s a real spirit of collaboration.”
With any luck — and perhaps a nudge from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is set to release a five-year strategic plan for improving STEM education — that same spirit of collaboration will someday extend to universities around the country.
There’s promising momentum. In 2016, Beijing electronics firm Huawei put $1 million into a research partnership with the University of California at Berkeley. Last year, the Vector Institute, an AI accelerator affiliated with the University of Guelph, University of Waterloo, and the University of Toronto, attracted a $5 million investment from Google. (It has raised a collective $150 million from Accenture, Nvidia, Facebook, and other private sector titans.) And in September, the University of Montreal’s Institute for Learning Algorithms announced partnerships with Facebook that include a $7 million investment, the open-sourcing of new frameworks and tools, and participation in technical conferences and workshops.
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