Why College AI Degree Programs Are Suddenly Lifting Off

By
David Rand
Why College AI Degree Programs Are Suddenly Lifting Off

No more waiting to be a graduate student to take an artificial intelligence course in a graduate program. The AI Bachelor’s Degree is here.

A few weeks ago, Akshina Gupta achieved something rare in the United States: she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in Artificial Intelligence (AI) from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Colleges have offered individual classes in various aspects of artificial intelligence for decades, typically through computer science programs. But until the technology’s rapid maturation the past few years, there just hadn’t been much demand to learn about it through a dedicated artificial intelligence program at an undergraduate level.

Now, with nearly every sizable business digitally transforming and using cognitive automation with their computer systems, the job market for graduates with artificial intelligence expertise is exploding. Yet, there isn’t anywhere near enough available talent with expertise in artificial intelligence and related machine learning (ML) technologies, which is why the role of data scientist sits atop most lists of high-paying tech jobs.

Higher Education Sees the Writing on the Wall

Of course, none of this has been lost on a growing list of colleges – like Indiana University and Purdue University (IUPUI), Columbia University, Cornell University, Georgia Tech, MIT, and the University of Georgia – that have been adding degrees or curriculum concentrations to churn out more students with artificial intelligence and machine learning expertise.

Gupta isn’t surprised. She saw the writing on the wall when CMU announced what was said to be the nation’s first artificial intelligence undergraduate degree in 2019, and she never looked back. In fact, before becoming part of CMU’s second graduating class this spring, Gupta had already landed a coveted job focusing on machine learning algorithms projects for X - The Moonshot Factory, the top-secret Google skunkworks lab working on everything from driverless taxis to cancer drugs and ways to save the environment.

“I think having this AI degree probably paved the way for getting that job,” says Gupta. “I’m specifically working on machine learning algorithms, so having that knowledge as an undergraduate helped a lot. Most AI and ML knowledge is still restricted to higher-level graduate degrees. But undergrad programs like CMU’s are making it so you can have access to that knowledge at an earlier stage.”

If Not Now, Opportunity Still Lies Ahead

Angela Yang, who also graduated with an artificial intelligence degree from CMU but ended up in an unrelated software engineering position, agrees the dedicated bachelor’s degree program nonetheless provided long-term career value.

“I definitely see the opportunity to eventually explore products that require more intelligence and the fact I have that background still positions me to pursue those kinds of jobs in the future,” she says.

Oddly enough, the industry at large may not have caught up to that way of thinking just yet. Research Professor Reid Simmons, one of the founders and director of the CMU degree program, notes that when his 2020 artificial intelligence class went out hunting for summer jobs, they noticed most required master’s degrees.

“They were worried, but I told them that by the time they graduated from the CMU program, they were going to have more education in AI than almost any other master’s program in the nation,” Simmons recalls. “The industry doesn’t know about programs like this yet. All they know is that most computer science students get single courses in artificial intelligence during their senior or junior years if they’re lucky. But that’s changing. Our undergraduates are starting to get summer jobs in AI that previously only went to master’s students.”

Cutting Across Education Disciplines

Mohammad Al Hasan, an associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), hopes for similar results when his schools unleash several artificial intelligence degree program options this fall.

As opposed to other campuses influenced mostly by where businesses were headed with the technology, Al Hasan says IUPUI administrators were also inspired by students and faculty – across multiple disciplines – who were trying to solve problems for which artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are needed.

“We had researchers from mechanical engineering coming to us (in computer science) and saying they needed to process drone images and videos from autonomous vehicles,” he says. “We also have a big medical school here and our research collaborators are always looking for students with strong expertise in computer vision and image processing technologies to address similarly challenging problems. Unfortunately, a graduate with a BS degree in CS does not necessarily have strong expertise in AI and ML, which our collaborators in industry and academia are constantly seeking.”

Al Hasan says the universities initially responded by forming the IUPUI Institute of Integrative AI, which seeks to advance the science of artificial intelligence and apply it for solving real-world problems in a variety of industries in Indiana. But as demand for trained workforce and formal course material grew and artificial intelligence took further root across industries, it became clear that building AI-trained workforces would be paramount in advancing the science of artificial intelligence through research.

Prioritizing Ethical Considerations

The entire practice of artificial intelligence, while presenting astounding possibilities for the future of business and technology, also raises numerous social and ethical challenges that must be understood, Al Hasan says. The most common of these include concerns about privacy and security, bias and discrimination, and the morals involved in handing jobs occupied by human beings over to machines.

Because such controversial subjects can derail artificial intelligence projects –  and because most business leaders are inexplicably ignoring such issues – both IUPUI and CMU put ethics at the center of their artificial intelligence curricula.

“As artificial intelligence gets involved in things like criminal justice, medical decisions, fraud detection, and autonomous vehicles, the ethics behind it becomes incredibly important,” says CMU’s Simmons. “So  at CMU, we not only require students to take courses in AI and ethics but also try to weave ethics into every other (core) course they take.”

Imagining Future Programs

Kellie Lauth, CEO of Mindspark, a non-profit organization working closely with IBM to advance technology education from kindergarten through college, says attempts to balance curriculum between technology and ethics are commendable. But she advises learning institutions to continue evolving their curriculum to focus on specific industry implementations of the technology.

For example, if artificial intelligence is being applied to consumer goods, there could be courses looking at ways to use it to make people feel good about products. If applied to fashion design, it could be utilized to influence styles based on up-to-the-minute data-driven trends. In financial services, it could be leveraged to derive actionable insights and recommendations to produce better experiences for banking and insurance customers.

“We’re going to have to start thinking about how to use AI across business sectors,” Lauth says. “That’s just going to be imperative. It is not something we can keep siloed anymore because AI is changing everything. We need to quickly cross-pollinate skills, and that starts with education.”

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By
David Rand
,
Business & Technology Reporter
Published:
June 15, 2021
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