Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Friday, September 25, 2020
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Fueling AI to Grow the Economy Is Goal of 5 New NSF AI Institutes 

AI research by the National Science Foundation will expand to a broader range of businesses across the U.S. economy through five new NSF AI institutes being created at a cost of $100 million.

The new initiatives, which were unveiled Aug. 26 by the agency, will deepen the NSF’s artificial intelligence research to expand the nation’s workforce and drive new possibilities for a wide range of businesses, educational institutions, medicine, banking and other organizations.

In a related announcement, two complementary AI research institutes are also being created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the next five years using $40 million in funding to expand AI research in farming and food processing.

The new AI institutes will emphasize use-inspired research to help businesses and organizations, said James Donlon, program director for information and intelligent systems in the NSF’s directorate for computer and information science and engineering (CISE) division.

“We’re trying to tackle some of the grand challenges that we see in these different sectors of the economy” to advance AI and a wide range of industries, said Donlon. “It is what we hope to fuel, to understand AI more and to make a big impact.”

The new institutes are organizing and creating implementation teams immediately, he said. “They are champing at the bit to get going and onto their research.”

The institutes will start their work as early as September through November.

“One of the things I’m really pleased to see, true to the goals of the program, is that each one of the institutes includes not only the promise to advance AI but also bold advances to help create this future AI workforce that we’ll need to be competitive,” said Donlon.

The efforts will create new collaborations and a network of AI research to expand these efforts, he added.

The new NSF AI institutes are:

  • NSF AI Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate, and Coastal Oceanography, led by a team at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, assembles researchers in AI, atmospheric and ocean science, and risk communication to develop user-driven trustworthy AI that addresses pressing concerns in weather, climate, and coastal hazards prediction. With AI certificate programs aimed at workforce skills, the institute is providing the research and training necessary for the future workforce to deliver the advances needed to deal with forecasting and prediction challenges.
  • NSF AI Institute for Foundations of Machine Learning, led by a team at the University of Texas, Austin, focuses on major theoretical challenges in AI, including next-generation algorithms for deep learning, neural architecture optimization, and efficient robust statistics. The institute's partners include large industrial technology companies and the city of Austin. Major online coursework and research initiatives will bring current AI tools to thousands of students and professionals across the country.
  • NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming, led by a team at the University of Colorado, Boulder, develops groundbreaking AI that helps both students and teachers to work and learn together more effectively, and equitably, while helping educators focus on what they do best: inspiring and teaching students. The vision is to develop engaging "AI partners" that will observe, participate in, and facilitate collaborative STEM learning conversations by interacting naturally through speech, gesture, gaze, and facial expression in real-world classrooms and remote learning settings.
  • NSF AI Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy, and Manufacturing (or the NSF Molecule Maker Lab), led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, focuses on development of new AI-enabled tools to accelerate automated chemical synthesis and advance the discovery and manufacture of novel materials and bioactive compounds. The institute also serves as a training ground for the next generation of scientists with combined expertise in AI, chemistry, and bioengineering.
  • NSF AI Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions, led by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, incorporates workforce development, digital learning, outreach, and knowledge transfer programs to develop AI methods that integrate the laws of physics as a guiding framework to advance our knowledge — from the smallest building blocks of nature to the largest structures in the universe — and galvanize AI research innovation to broaden societal impacts.

Led by NSF, the AI initiatives are being conducted in partnership with the U.S.D.A.’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Homeland's Security Science and Technology Directorate, and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, according to the NSF. The institutes will serve as nodes in a broader nationwide network that will pursue transformational advances in sectors of societal impact, from extreme weather preparedness to K-12 education.

The new U.S.D.A. AI institutes are:

  •  USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, led by a team at the University of California, Davis, integrates a holistic view of the food system with AI and bioinformatics to understand biological data and processes, addressing issues of molecular breeding to optimize traits for yield, crop quality, and pest/disease resistance; agricultural production, food processing and distribution, and nutrition. Major emphasis is on inclusive education and outreach approaches to build a diverse, next-generation workforce.
  • USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management, and Sustainability, led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, advances AI research in computer vision, machine learning, soft object manipulation and intuitive human-robot interaction to solve major agricultural challenges including labor shortages, efficiency and welfare in animal agriculture, environmental resilience of crops, and the need to safeguard soil health. The institute features a new joint Computer Science + Agriculture degree and global clearinghouse to foster collaboration in AI-driven agriculture research.

Erwin Gianchandani, deputy assistant director for the NSF’s directorate for computer and information science and engineering (CISE) division, said the newly-funded institutes have their roots in NSF-funded research going back many decades.

“We’re trying to unleash the potential and bringing together data and advanced computing capabilities,” said Gianchandani.

A wide range of other organizations will also be involved in the AI research initiatives, including minority colleges and universities, companies, states and others, he said. The first programs will involve research in about 20 U.S. states.

“This is really about a coalition of the willing coming together in a meaningful way,” said Gianchandani. “It is a first installment, a first round of institutes we are funding now.”

Another funding round could come a year from now to further expand the program across the nation, he said.

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