Northeastern University Invests In the Future of AI

Northeastern University is looking to the future and investing in multiple institutes focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. In January of this year, the Boston University announced a partnership with technology entrepreneur David Roux to launch a graduate education and research campus in Portland, Maine, at the Roux Institute, which is dedicated to AI and machine learning.

This news comes on the heels of Northeastern’s October 2019 launch of the Institute for Experiential Artificial Intelligence, a humanities-based research center also focused on artificial intelligence development.

Two Institutes Designed to Shape the Future of AI

The goal of the Institute for Experiential Artificial Intelligence, according to Northeastern’s announcement, is to “place human skills and intelligence at the forefront of artificial intelligence development, from the earliest design steps to the final implementation.” To achieve this goal, the university is investing $50 million for the institute and will hire as many as 30 new faculty members. The Institute is intended to be an interdisciplinary research hub where faculty and researchers from the humanities, law, public policy, AI and machine learning, computing, digital humanities, health, security, materials science, and sustainability will collaborate to develop the future of AI.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun declared in an announcement to the university’s students, faculty, and staff, “This new institute, the first of its kind, will focus on enabling artificial intelligence and humans to collaborate interactively around solving problems in health, security, and sustainability. We believe that the true promise of AI lies not in its ability to replace humans, but to optimize what humans do best.”

The Roux Institute at Northeastern University is a joint venture between the university and tech entrepreneur David Roux and his wife Barbara, who have invested $100 million to support the Roux Institute’s activities. The Roux Institute will provide graduate degree and certificate programs that focus on the practical application of AI and machine learning in the digital and life sciences. It will not offer undergraduate degrees, however.

The Roux institute’s curriculum will be designed around research programs in three areas: Life sciences and medicine, engineering, and data visualization. The top priority set for the Roux Institute in the life sciences is to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop new advances in medicine, biology, and human health through the analysis of data. The same techniques will be used in engineering and design, focusing on the development of unique materials and designs in the advancement of new technology and devices. The institute will also focus research in the creation data visualization and user interface tools to enable non-experts in analyzing and using data and artificial intelligence.

Northeastern most recently announced that the Roux Institute will open in the fall at a facility currently under construction in Portland, Maine. The new building is operated by one of the ten founding corporate partners of the institute, WEX Inc. Wex is an information management services and payment processing provider. The Roux Institute will have 26,500 square feet of dedicated space in the new facility separate from WEX, while a permanent location for the institute in Portland is selected and developed for 2024. Employees of WEX and other corporate partners will be among the first students at the institute. Its curriculum and research programs are being developed in collaboration with corporate partners with the aim of meeting their talent needs.

The university’s investment in artificial intelligence is a natural expansion of several other interdisciplinary efforts already ongoing at Northeastern, including the university’s Institute for Experiential Robotics, the Ethics Institute, and the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things. Both of the new institutes are part of the university’s strategic plan, dubbed “Northeastern 2025.” This strategic plan is a blueprint for student learning and development based on the core metaphor of “networks.” These networks—between people, data, machines, experiences, etc.—are part of Northeastern’s vision for experiential learning to prepare students for what they call an “Age of Humanics.” Northeastern 2025 is aimed at understanding and harnessing the relationships between humans, data, artificial intelligence, and machines.

Why These Efforts Matter

It is not a question of whether artificial intelligence, automation, and machine learning will shape the future of medicine, engineering, and public life. AI is already a part of so much of the modern world. The real question is how that future will be shaped, both in a technical and ethical sense.

Artificial intelligence is already playing a major role in most fields, especially in medicine and human sciences. As Iris Berent, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, points out in a recent LA Times op-ed, “Artificial intelligence is everywhere. It helps drive your car, recognizes your face at the airport’s immigration checkpoint, interprets your CT scans, reads your resume, traces your interactions on social media, and even vacuums your carpet.” While the general fear about AI is more reminiscent of the Terminator or Matrix franchises, Berent points out, the actual dangers tend to be more hidden and less overtly apocalyptic.

The true dangers of AI are the same those posed by any technological advancement: who makes it, how they design it (and for whom), who controls it, and who benefits (or suffers) from it. While AI, automation, and algorithms can make life and work much easier, they reenact many of the same biases and problems of the human choices they are designed to replace. To adequately program an artificial intelligence system, even a so-called “learning” AI, requires vast amounts of forethought to anticipate the different scenarios and choices that AI may encounter.

As an example of the kinds of ethical choices AI may encounter, consider automated vehicles. When building an automated car, one must program how the car’s AI will “respond” to different accident risks. Some choices are simple: if a pedestrian steps in front of the car, the car will apply its brakes to preserve the life of the pedestrian. But what if there is a car immediately behind the AI car when the pedestrian steps into the street? Braking suddenly could cause an accident that puts passengers in both cars at risk of injury or death. Do you program the car to swerve? What if there is oncoming traffic? The car must make a split-second decision about which potential deaths or injuries are most acceptable.

Other challenges that face AI are questions of bias. The belief is usually that a machine, using logic to make choices, will not be biased along lines of race, sex, gender, etc. These machines are made and designed by people, however, with their own implicit biases. As companies turn to AI tools to make job candidate selection more efficient, for example, they expose themselves to the risk of compounding potential biases embedded in their applicant filtering criteria. For example, as Paige Smith and Daniel R. Stoller recently pointed out in a Bloomberg Law article, even Amazon recently had to abandon their learning-AI recruitment program because it taught itself that male applicants were preferable to women applicants based on the company’s current hiring patterns. The AI, rather than selecting the “best” candidate, simply recreated the biases already inherent in the hiring process.

These are all ethical questions without easy answers. Northeastern’s two new institutes and their investment in the future of AI and the human element in its creation are efforts to figure out how to anticipate and answer such questions.

About the Author
Phineas Dowling is a PhD candidate in literature at Auburn University where he teaches literature and composition. His dissertation is on Scottish identity and British literature of the long eighteenth century. In addition to his scholarship, Phineas has a strong interest in pedagogy and university administration.