New Dean of MIT Engineering School to Prioritize AI Research

IEEE Fellow Anantha Chandrakasan talks about the university’s 10-year partnership with IBM

14 November 2017

After being named dean of MIT’s School of Engineering in July, IEEE Fellow Anantha P. Chandrakasan hit the ground running by leading the effort to form the joint MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. The agreement was signed in September. IBM said it will provide US $240 million to fund the 10-year initiative, which launched last month, to be housed both on the MIT campus and IBM offices in Cambridge.

The lab is focusing on applications of artificial intelligence, including for biomedicine and cybersecurity. Chandrakasan, who joined the MIT faculty in 1994 and headed the department of electrical engineering and computer science for the last six years, is overseeing the collaboration. In this interview with The Institute, he talks about his vision for the lab and goals he has for the engineering school.

Negotiating the IBM collaboration was your first big success as the new dean. Why was the partnership important to you?

AI is everywhere. It’s used in just about every domain you can think of, and this will only increase in the coming years. AI will be central to such diverse fields as image and speech recognition, machine learning for disease detection, and financial systems for global trade.

MIT’s collaboration with IBM will bring academic and industry researchers together to work on hardware and software that could advance AI technology. The partnership will allow us to focus on conducting basic research and developing applications while drawing on IBM’s resources and experts who have tremendous access to real-world data and computing power.

How can the collaboration benefit students?

With the lab designed to foster collaboration, students will learn firsthand what it’s like to work with an industry partner. The agreement requires both MIT and IBM researchers to participate in all projects.

Why did MIT partner with IBM?

IBM and MIT have been pioneers in artificial intelligence research, and we have a long history of working together. In 2016 IBM Research began a multiyear collaboration with the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences to advance the field of machine vision as well as a five-year, $50 million collaboration with MIT’s Broad Institute and Harvard to research AI and genomics. We share a philosophy for making the world better through technology, and we’re confident the lab will lead to fruitful endeavors.

Will the collaboration consider the ethics of AI?

We are committed to exploring and understanding the ethics of AI, particularly the risks the technology could bring. This collaboration will focus on how to build helpful AI systems that have a positive impact on people’s lives. Furthermore, MIT researchers will explore how AI can deliver economic and societal benefits to a broad range of people, nations, and enterprises.

What do you hope will come out of this collaboration at the end of its 10 years?

In addition to both fundamental and applied research, I hope to see many startups come out of the lab. I plan to leverage other MIT programs to drive commercialization of AI products and services. These include programs at the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation and the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and seed funding and incubator programs, like the Sandbox Innovation Fund and the Engine, which is also accessible to people outside of MIT. I want these collaborations to help fuel jobs and support the advancement of AI.

What are some of your priorities for MIT’s engineering program?

My initial priorities include increasing the impact of our research by promoting collaborations across schools and departments. I also will advance our innovative educational initiatives and approaches. One example is our new project-based pilot program, NEET [New Engineering Education Transformation], which has the potential to re-engineer engineering education by breaking down disciplinary boundaries.

I will also establish collaborations with other schools at MIT and beyond, including companies and other universities, and support our community by building on our culture of leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

You said in an article posted on the MIT News website that your leadership approach is to connect directly with students. How will you do that as dean?

I plan to continue engaging with students through a new student advisory board I have formed—which will help inform my decisions about the school and help students achieve their academic and career goals. Their valuable input will influence new initiatives and opportunities that we will develop at the school. I will support programs that enhance the student and faculty experience.

You are an IEEE Fellow who has been widely published in IEEE journals. How has being a member of the organization influenced your work at MIT?

IEEE has provided me with incredible access to mentors. For example, acting as chair of the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference has helped me understand technology from a broader perspective. And that has influenced my formulation of important research problems and helped create more collaborations between academia and industry.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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