By Keith Hautala
Oregon State University’s College of Engineering is launching a unique program for graduate study in artificial intelligence, with an initial cohort of about 40 students to be enrolled in fall 2021.
Oregon State’s program will be the first in the United States to offer both master’s and doctoral degrees in artificial intelligence as an interdisciplinary field of study, said Scott Ashford, Kearney Dean of Engineering. A small number of institutions throughout the country have launched undergraduate or master’s programs in AI, and a few offer doctoral programs specializing in machine learning.
“AI is what I like to call the outward-looking face of computer science,” said OSU’s Prasad Tadepalli, the new program’s director and a professor of computer science. “Much of computer science is associated with how to make computers faster, better, cheaper and so on. AI is more focused on how to apply computer science to other fields.”
In addition to offering courses and research opportunities in core AI topics — machine learning, knowledge representation, reasoning under uncertainty, sequential decision-making, natural language processing and computer vision — the program allows students to choose relevant courses from a wide range of disciplines across the university.
The crux of artificial intelligence is using computers to make decisions. As machines have become more “intelligent,” the decisions we delegate to them have become more and more complex, even as the technology has become increasingly unnoticeable to users.
“People use AI every day without even thinking about it, every time they search Google or ask Siri for directions,” said Julie A. Adams, associate director of OSU’s Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems Institute, or CoRIS, and a professor of computer science.
The impetus to create the AI graduate program arose from CoRIS, which launched a similar interdisciplinary graduate program in robotics in 2014.
“Like robotics, artificial intelligence is a field that is going to have, and is already having, a vast impact in our lives — in consumer goods, technology used by first responders, government systems and more,” Adams said. “In the broader context of society, the goal of this program is to train individuals to be leaders in industry or academia, to start new companies, to make their own contributions to this rapidly expanding field.”
Previously, students could select artificial intelligence as an area of concentration in computer science. Oregon State’s computer science graduate program typically accepted 30 to 40 AI-focused master’s and doctoral students from more than 400 applicants each year.
It’s significant that Oregon State’s new program does not require a computer science degree as a prerequisite, said Alan Fern, associate head of research and professor of computer science for OSU’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
“Often students who are well-poised to study artificial intelligence don't come from a traditional computer science background,” he said. “The AI program is meant to be more flexible and will be enriched by having students with advanced knowledge in areas outside of computer science. Sometimes getting a domain expertise is much harder than getting the necessary expertise in computer science and statistics. People who have deep domain expertise plus knowledge and expertise in applying decision-making AI tools are going to be very highly sought in the job market.”
From an economic and strategic perspective, expertise in AI will be crucial for the United States to maintain its position as a world leader, Tadepalli says.
“People think of AI as the next industrial revolution,” he said. “Many advanced countries are very much aware of that and are investing a lot of money and resources and energy into AI. Being competitive in the world, in this century, will essentially depend on how well we can advance this field, not only making research advances, but also educating the public in the right ways of using the technology.”
Darrell Boggs, vice president of CPU engineering for NVIDIA, whose founder and CEO is Oregon State graduate Jensen Huang, noted that what used to be science fiction is now becoming reality – from autonomous motor vehicles to a range of technologies in the medical sector.
“Artificial intelligence is changing our lives by helping health care professionals tackle critical challenges like drug discovery and disease detection,” he said. “AI is being used to increase diagnostic accuracy, enabling the medical imaging community to improve patient outcomes. A new AI model was developed to detect COVID-19 in CT scans with 96% accuracy. And spurred by the need to keep employees and patients safe, thermal imaging cameras enhanced with AI have been used to detect individuals with elevated temperatures in real time as they enter facilities.”
About the OSU College of Engineering: The 10th largest engineering program based on undergraduate enrollment, the college received nearly $60 million in sponsored research awards in the 2019-20 fiscal year and is global leader in health-related engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced manufacturing, clean water and energy, materials science, computing and resilient infrastructure. The college ranks second nationally among land grant universities and third among the nation’s 94 public R1 universities for percentage of tenured or tenure-track faculty who are women.