Experts in the ways computers can mimic and even surpass the human brain’s capabilities are welcoming news of the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence at Colby.

The College recently announced a $30-million gift to establish the first cross-disciplinary institute for artificial intelligence (AI) at a liberal arts college—an important moment for higher education.

“Colby College is a pioneer in an area that I can only see growing,” said Marius Stan, program lead for intelligent materials design at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, a research facility under the U.S. Department of Energy. “It is a two-way communication line between artificial intelligence and liberal arts—they are influencing each other as we speak.”

Marius Stan

“Colby College is a pioneer in an area that I can only see growing. It is a two-way communication line between artificial intelligence and liberal arts—they are influencing each other as we speak.” —Marius Stan, program lead for intelligent materials design at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, a research facility under the U.S. Department of Energy

A computational physicist and chemist who has authored several scientific papers, Stan thinks about ways AI can improve the design and manufacture of different materials for energy production, electronics, and national security applications—predicting defects in 3D printed parts, for example. Recently, he coauthored a research paper showing that AI could help optimize a complex process called flame spray pyrolysis, in which chemicals are combusted to make very fine powders. The technique could speed the scale-up of next-generation battery materials.

Which parts of the economy will see the biggest change because of AI? Stan gives a twofold answer. “There are some sectors of the economy that I see being impacted rapidly and significantly to some degree,” he said, pointing to traffic control, communication, and forecasting of all kinds—climate, stocks, the economy.

Other changes, he predicted, will take years, but will be the most dramatic: our culture, our habits, the way we communicate, and the decisions we make will all be affected by AI. Even today, he pointed out, you hardly have to think about where you’re going when you get in a car; an AI-driven navigation system does the thinking for you.

Because of this fundamental shift, we also need to be shifting how we think about education.

“We teach math, and at some point, we started teaching computer science and programming in high school,” he said. “At some point, we will start teaching artificial intelligence.”

In fact, some secondary schools already are beginning to do just that, with the help of the AI Education Project, a nonprofit organization that designs curriculum for high school students about “the new electricity.” By the end of this school year, the group will have reached 6,500 students in six states—Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Kentucky, Arkansas, and California—preparing them for college and careers in which AI will be increasingly vital to an ever-growing range of fields and industries.

Ora Tanner

“To see such a huge gift being invested to take a different approach from Silicon Valley—to me that is really encouraging. Hopefully other institutions will follow the lead.” —Ora Tanner, cofounder of the AI Project, a nonprofit focused on increasing AI literacy

The Davis Institute at Colby will incorporate ethics, among other aspects of AI study, as part of a unique, cross-disciplinary approach to AI across the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Ora Tanner, who was a science educator for 12 years before cofounding the AI Education Project, applauded this more holistic approach, noting that AI in education has traditionally been confined to the realm of computer science or STEM, even though it has social, political, economic, and cultural implications.

“To see such a huge gift being invested to take a different approach from Silicon Valley—to me that is really encouraging,” she said. “Hopefully other institutions will follow the lead.”

Tanner’s group aims to ensure AI literacy for all students—in addition to its work in high schools, the project is also piloting middle school curriculum. “AI systems will be transforming every single area of life that we know,” she said. “We feel it’s important for students to start thinking about it now.”

The goal is to help students make informed decisions about their future paths and to bring a more diverse set of minds to the AI field. Instances of racism and sexism in algorithms, Tanner noted, come down to who’s developing them. She pointed to a recent data science industry survey in which nearly half of respondents cited either bias or privacy as the “biggest problem to tackle” in the field, even though only 15 percent of respondents said their team was actively addressing the issue of bias, and only 15 percent of instructors and professors say they teach AI ethics.

Colby’s strong foundation

Many Colby faculty and alumni are already working at the forefront of this new technology. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Hannah Wolfe, for example, is bringing awareness to the problem of human bias in datasets through her work in robotics and interactive art. Alumnus Chaz Langelier ’00 is using AI to illuminate the genetic patterns behind infectious disease.

And current Colby students are interning at startups such as Boston-based nonprofit Reboot Rx, which uses a type of AI called natural language processing to sift through medical literature for existing drugs that could be repurposed to treat cancer.

Laura Kleiman

“The challenge working in this cross-disciplinary space is that you need people who can speak the different languages.” —Laura Kleiman, founder and CEO of Reboot Rx, which uses a type of AI called natural language processing to sift through medical literature for existing drugs that could be repurposed to treat cancer

“The challenge working in this cross-disciplinary space is that you need people who can speak the different languages,” said Reboot founder and CEO Laura Kleiman. “It’s not that a biologist needs to be able to implement natural language processing algorithms, or that a computer scientist needs to know what every protein does. But being familiar with the terminology is extremely helpful in being able to work with others in a cross-disciplinary team.”

Kleiman said she was excited to hear about the Davis Institute: “I’m hopeful that it will lead to a stronger collaboration between Reboot Rx and Colby students, since they have been very bright and really impactful in our organization to help drive our projects forward.”

Joshua Browning, a machine learning developer at AMP Robotics in Colorado, echoes Kleiman on the importance of having a cross-disciplinary mindset. At AMP, Browning is developing automated machines that can sort recycling waste—a huge issue, since the value of a recycled material depends on the ability to source a relatively pure stream of it.

Josh Browning

Technology, he said, always needs good communicators. “There’s a lot of demand for that in the workforce now. … Being able to translate the problems from the engineers to the business is important.” —Joshua Browning, machine learning developer at AMP Robotics in Colorado

Technology, he said, always needs good communicators. “There’s a lot of demand for that in the workforce now. The stereotypical engineer or developer tends to be somebody who’s really good at what they’re doing and maybe not so good at communicating,” Browning said. “Being able to translate the problems from the engineers to the business is important.”

The Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence is creating an opportunity for students to think critically about multiple aspects of this burgeoning field, experts say. And they emphasize that artificial intelligence is here to stay, and what it achieves for society will rest on the human intelligence that guides it.

“There’s no point in using computational approaches,” said Kleiman, “if you’re not asking the right questions.”