Faculty, staff and students have had to reinvest a lot of their energy over the past nine months coping with a global pandemic. But it’s important to note that the redistribution of effort hasn’t completely halted progress on other important work at the university.

UM-Dearborn’s new artificial intelligence center is a case in point. The Dearborn Artificial Intelligence Research Center was founded less than a year ago. But organizers have already made progress toward their goal of making AI one of the university’s topline areas for research, education and industry collaboration.

Marouane Kessentini, the DAIR Center’s founding director and associate professor of computer and information science, said one of the main reasons for creating the center was to ignite more collaboration among the many faculty and students whose work involves AI. That’s imperative because today’s most interesting and relevant AI problems are often so complex, no one researcher can tackle them alone.

“The deep projects require people from computer science, people who have core expertise in statistics and business, and even people who have an understanding of ethics and human behavior,” Kessentini said. “So the goal is to bring us all together to enable much larger-scale research than we’ve done before and which is required by today’s industry.”

Over the past year, the DAIR Center has organized activities to nurture that culture. One of the most productive, he said, has been weekly brainstorming sessions, which are often centered on broad funding opportunities rather than specific AI research areas that might attract some folks and not others.

Through those sessions, DAIR Center teams have brainstormed, vetted and submitted numerous proposals, including a smart cities-focused project designed to support the Urban Futures component of UM-Dearborn’s new strategic plan.

The approach seems to be working, too: Several of the DAIR Center team projects have already won funding. And the center also recently organized a joint training with IBM on AI for smart manufacturing that attracted more than 150 participants from industry and academia.

Kessentini said this same philosophy could also reshape the student experience of AI, with a more interdisciplinary curriculum and increased opportunities to work closely with business leaders. In their conversations with industry, one of the themes they heard again and again was a huge need for talent that transcends mere technical expertise.

“When we talk about building real-world AI systems, it goes far beyond just knowing algorithms and the basics of computer science. They’re looking for people who can actually understand the ethics part of AI, the biases in the data, and build systems that account for all of that,” he said.

To that end, Kessentini said UM-Dearborn and the DAIR Center hope they’ll soon be launching an interdisciplinary master’s degree in artificial intelligence — the first program of its kind in Michigan. 

The mantra for building the new center is “think big, start small, and scale fast,” and even less than a year in, it looks like they’re starting to eye that third step. Already, the DAIR Center’s ranks include more than 40 faculty from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, College of Business and College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters, 30 doctoral students, and dozens of alumni and industry partners, including IBM, eBay and Sumitomo.

They’re hopeful they’ll attract even more interest through an AI symposium Nov. 30-Dec. 4. That will feature five days of keynotes and panels, and top executives from Google, IBM, Ford, Oracle, GM, Intel and more.

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