The Americas’ most innovative universities for AI and robotics

With some of the world’s top-ranking universities located in the region, can American AI outsmart the rest of the world?

Across North and South America, automation is transforming the nature of work and is set to replace around a third of roles. Yet at the same time, AI is generating new opportunities and job prospects.

To ensure long-term economic success, many experts believe nurturing the AI talent pipeline will be essential.

But how do the universities across the region fare?

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1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA

Credit: Justin Jensen (CC BY 2.0)

MIT’s motto is ‘mind and hand’, summing up the institute’s goal of combining thought and practical action to solve the world’s problems.

Recent notable project

Researchers from MIT have created the world’s ‘first psychopathic AI’. The AI – named Norman – was fed descriptions of images of people dying found on Reddit. Norman was then given images of ink blots to see if its algorithm could describe the blots in a way similar to traditionally trained AIs. Rather than seeing ‘a group of birds sitting on top of a tree branch’, Norman saw ‘a man getting electrocuted’.  The idea was to show how machine learning algorithms can go wrong when given biased data.

Recent achievement

MIT launched its ‘MIT Quest for Intelligence’ programme (also known as The Quest) in February 2018. It’s a campus-wide initiative designed to encourage the development of technological tools that can positively influence every aspect of society.

The range of questions we aspire to explore through The Quest is simply breath-taking. There are moments in the history of science when the tools, the data, and the big questions are perfectly synchronized to achieve major advances. I believe we are in just such a moment, and that we are poised to advance the understanding of intelligence in every sense in a profound way.

Leo Rafael Reif, President, MIT

2. Carnegie Mellon University, USA

Credit: Carnegie Mellon University by -cpt- (CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The university, based in Pittsburgh, is a renowned institution in AI circles.

Recent notable project

Researchers at the university have created an AI that can help people make sense of privacy policies. The algorithm crawled 7,000 of the most popular websites’ policies and identified sections that contained language concerning data collection, third-party sharing and other privacy issues. The idea is that people can then scroll the AI-annotated privacy policy and jump directly to the sections that are of particular interest to them (and often buried deep in complicated legalese).

Recent achievement

Carnegie Mellon has become the first university in the United States to offer an undergraduate degree in AI. The coursework will include subjects such as maths, statistics, computer science, machine learning, computational modelling and neural networks.

We’re not training these students to just use tools, we’re training them to understand the science enough so that they can build the tools themselves. The main emphasis of the course is understanding how this works so that they’ll be able to go out into the workforce and build the next TensorFlow, not just use it.

Reid Simmons, Research Professor, Carnegie Mellon University

3. University of Southern California (USC), USA

Credit: Himajin / University of Southern California at Great Degree (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The university’s Center for AI in Society (CAIS) has a strong focus on using AI to tackle difficult societal problems.

Recent notable project

Researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute have used AI to create a computer modelling and predictive analysis tool that can better understand how the relationship between humans and nature impacts the planet. It combines existing models from various disciplines, including agriculture, economics and social sciences to predict the outcomes of policies in specific geographic regions.

Recent achievement

As part of the inaugural CAIS Social Work Fellows Programme, visiting researchers from around the world came to the USC last summer to learn from working models established by the centre’s co-founders. Topics studied included suicide prevention among college students, social support for North Korean refugees to better integrate into South Korean society, wildlife conservation through poaching prevention, HIV and substance abuse prevention for homeless youth, and predicting and reducing gang violence in Los Angeles.

Using artificial intelligence to promote the greater good is an emerging area of study with huge potential. Our goal in establishing this fellowship is to bring together the best and brightest scholars in artificial intelligence and social work to explore breakthrough solutions to age-old problems plaguing many of our cities and communities.

Eric Rice, Co-director of CAIS

4. University of Waterloo, Canada

Credit: Eigenes Werk (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The university ranks in the top 30 in the world for computer science.

Recent notable project

Researchers have found that it’s possible to detect if a user’s health is failing by applying AI to data generated from wearables. With changes in aerobic responses, researchers are able to predict if a person is experiencing the onset of a respiratory or cardiovascular disease. According to Thomas Beltrame, who led the research: “The onset of a lot of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, has a direct impact on our aerobic fitness.”

Recent achievement

The university has recently launched a new AI research hub. The Waterloo AI Institute will bring together researchers and businesses to advance AI research and development. Focus areas include healthcare, urban planning, autonomous systems and human-machine interaction.

Industry collaboration has long been one of the major strengths of the University of Waterloo and we continue in that tradition through the institute’s many planned activities. We want to make sure that the efforts and work being done by our professors, researchers and students shine to the outside world and benefit society.

Fakhri Karray, Co-director of the Waterloo AI Institute, University of Waterloo

5. University of São Paulo, Brazil

Credit: Hector.carvalho (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The university is often regarded as one of the best in Latin America.

Recent notable project

A team at the university has developed technology that can help fight highly resistant agricultural pests. The algorithm works by analysing the connections between pest patterns of dispersal in crops and the different configurations in diversified intercropping systems.

Recent achievement

The university aims to equip its students with skills for the future. Logics, Artificial Intelligence and Formal Methods Lab (LIAMF) was created in 2000. Its researchers are concerned with natural language processing, machine learning, knowledge representation, data mining and more. Meanwhile, over at the Faculty of Economics and Administration, students can now take a class in cryptocurrencies as part of the Derivatives course.

[Future professionals] need to decipher which factors are beneficial and which are not.

Alan de Genaro, Department of Economics, University of São Paulo (via CryptoBuzz)

Leading institutions in America continue to drive progress in AI and robotics. But while decades of private and public investment have created conditions for world-leading AI research in the US, the current environment appears to be clouded by uncertainty. As such, it’s important to keep an eye on AI investment at a university level, as well as wider national policies and private sector efforts.

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