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MIT announces $1b outlay for study of artificial intelligence, computing

The main entrance to MIT on Mass. Ave.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
The main entrance to MIT on Mass. Ave.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has long been synonymous with advances in modern software and electronics. But the university has never had a school devoted to the computer.

That is set to change. MIT on Monday announced that it will devote $1 billion to a new college for computing and artificial intelligence, a sum that the institute said would help it “rewire” the way it teaches in a world where digital shifts are changing every field of study.

MIT president L. Rafael Reif said the college would encourage students to go beyond the technology and consider its effects.

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“We have to move much faster educating the next generation for the new economy,” said Reif. “The way to do that is to come up with integrated curriculum. That’s what the college is all about.”

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The effort is also emblematic of MIT’s ambitions to lead the way into a new era of computing dominated by artificial intelligence. The institute has announced a series of eye-popping plans in the past year, including a massive new schoolwide research collaboration to seek AI breakthroughs.

MIT has already brought in $650 million for the new college announced Monday, with $350 million from Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman and chief executive of the giant asset management firm Blackstone. The new college will bear his name.

In an interview, Schwarzman said he hopes the gift will encourage other research institutions and governments to think big about how artificial intelligence will affect the workforce, economics, and national security.

“I think this will stimulate other universities to stimulate further investments in this area, which has a variety of good outcomes for the country,” he said.

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MIT said the Schwarzman College, which launches next fall, will eventually be located in a “signature new building” on campus and allow the “future of computing and AI to be shaped by insights from all other disciplines.” The institute has not yet unveiled plans for the building.

Computer science has long been part of the MIT School of Engineering, and the institute in recent years has been offering students the ability to learn the trade in conjunction with other disciplines, such as urban studies and economics.

Forty percent of students in MIT’s most recent graduating class had majors in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science program, a figure that provost Martin Schmidt described as an indicator of the broader importance of computer science.

“They’ve recognized — perhaps earlier than we have — that having those skills is really going to arm them with the tools to work on problems that matter to them,” he said.

The creation of a separate school for computing is intended to create a forum for interdisciplinary pursuits. MIT plans to create 50 new faculty positions as part of the expansion.

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The Cambridge school has been the site of some of the most important breakthroughs in computing, and it was an early testing ground for some of the fundamental concepts behind artificial intelligence.

However, many of the recent breakthroughs in the hot AI field of machine learning — a method of plowing through massive amounts of data to find patterns and generate insights — have come from researchers at other institutions.

Reif said he hopes the work being done at MIT will mean that the next big steps happen there. But he said his primary concern with the new college is to give the next generation of technologists a better moral compass to think about the implications of what they build.

In society, he said, “obviously we haven’t done a very good job at that.”

“We have to try a new way. This is our attempt to try a new way of doing that as we try to educate people.”

Researchers have long been challenged by the ethical implications of their creations; just ask the scientists behind the atomic bomb or the developers responsible for the addictive design of many social networks.

Artificial intelligence presents a particularly thorny set of questions. If computers can replace humans in the workplace, for example, what happens to a culture that places huge social value on hard work and ambition?

Melissa Nobles, dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, said these are fundamental questions of our time, and MIT should be equipped to help students answer them.

She noted that her school was created in the 1950s, when the technological community was reckoning with the massive destruction of World War II, and computers had barely begun to infiltrate business activities, much less everyday human interchanges. Humanities were seen as a way to usher in a more well-rounded generation of technologists.

“The idea was that we need scientists and engineers who are also great citizens. They’re mindful of their full responsibilities,” Nobles said.

The latest effort is similarly “sensitive to the moment,” Nobles said: “We’re into 21st century, there’s a lot that’s changing, and we have to be intellectually prepared for it.”

Semyon Dukach, managing partner of the Boston investment firm One Way Ventures and an MIT alum, said Monday that the announcement is a sign of the stakes in the coming era of advancement for artificial intelligence.

“It’s very fundamental, and it’s going to transform the world, in drastic terms,” he said. “It’s as big as computing, which means it’s bigger than manufacturing. It’s bigger than entertainment. It’s bigger than almost anything else.”

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.