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Higher Education

MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing Will Focus on Tech and Ethics

By Cait Etherington
October 20, 2018
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Machine learning generally refers to a field of artificial intelligences (AI) that entails using statistical techniques to enable computer systems to learn from data without ongoing manual programming. While the possibilities are exciting, machine learning also raises new and unique ethical questions. Earlier this week, MIT announced plans to open the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing to help prepare future scholars to work in the AI and machine learning fields. Although the new college will focus on computing, it will also create a space for scholars in the humanities to explore the ethical implications of AI and machine learning.

The MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing

Made possible by a $350 million foundational gift from Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will be housed in a new building on the MIT campus. The new college will draw on existing MIT strengths and include faculty already working in the AI and machine learning fields in existing faculties. The new college will also enable MIT to recruit additional AI researchers from around the world. As stated in a press release issued by MIT on October 15, with the new college, MIT plans to hire 50 new faculty members. While some will be fully appointed to the new college, others will hold cross appointments in existing faculties.

In a statement issued at the time of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing announcement, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said, “As computing reshapes our world, MIT intends to help make sure it does so for the good of all. In keeping with the scope of this challenge, we are reshaping MIT. The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will constitute both a global center for computing research and education, and an intellectual foundry for powerful new AI tools.” President Reif adds, “Just as important, the College will equip students and researchers in any discipline to use computing and AI to advance their disciplines and vice-versa, as well as to think critically about the human impact of their work. With uncommon insight and generosity, Mr. Schwarzman is enabling a bold agenda that will lead to a better world. I am deeply grateful for his commitment to our shared vision.”

How MIT’s New College Holds the Potential to Drive Machine Learning

While machine learning is only one thing students and faculty will be learning about and developing at the new college, it is an area of study and research likely to achieve considerable attention.  Machine learning represents an important threshold in the history of computing–the moment when machines can finally start to learn new skills on their own. While this is certainly exciting, it also raises considerable ethical and social questions. For this reasons, the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will not only bring together scientists but also scholars working in other fields, including the arts and humanities. Indeed, one of the stated mandates of the new college is to “develop new curricula that will connect computer science and AI with other disciplines.” Another mandate of the college is to “host forums to engage national leaders from business, government, academia, and journalism to examine the anticipated outcomes of advances in AI and machine learning, and to shape policies around the ethics of AI.”

Again, as President Reif observes, “Computing is no longer the domain of the experts alone. It’s everywhere, and it needs to be understood and mastered by almost everyone. In that context, for a host of reasons, society is uneasy about technology — and at MIT, that’s a signal we must take very seriously. Technological advancements must go hand in hand with the development of ethical guidelines that anticipate the risks of such enormously powerful innovations. This is why we must make sure that the leaders we graduate offer the world not only technological wizardry but also human wisdom — the cultural, ethical, and historical consciousness to use technology for the common good.”

Schwarzman, whose $350 million gift will make the new college possible, also emphasizes the key role that ethical issues will play in the college’s curriculum: “Advances in computing — and in AI in particular — have increasing power to alter the fabric of society. But left unchecked, these technologies could ultimately hurt more people than they help. We need to do everything we can to ensure all Americans can share in AI’s development. Universities are best positioned for fostering an environment in which everyone can embrace — not fear — the transformations ahead.”

Image c/o Wikimedia Commons