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CMU Is Adapting To Keep Teachers As Demand For AI Experts Grows

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Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University will launch a bachelor's degree program in artificial intelligence this fall.

Beginning this fall, Carnegie Mellon University will offer an undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence, the first of its kind available in the U.S.

The expansion announced Thursday is an effort to meet the growing demand for AI experts.

Facebook recently announced it had hired two CMU professors to open a new AI lab in Pittsburgh. One of those professors will continue to teach while the other will spend most of his time with the social media company.

The move is the latest in what many call a drain from academia to industry, as artificial intelligence specialists are in short supply. Andrew Moore, dean of CMU’s School of Computer Science, said he has to plan ahead knowing that more professors will leave for similar opportunities.

“I have already hired over the last two years 40 professors into the school of computer science just so that we can both deal with the growth of huge demand from students for our courses and to actually have some margin so that it’s completely OK for a few professors to go spend some time in industry or in some other areas,” he said.

Moore says there are talented students in the pipeline who could soon move into teaching roles. He hopes to leverage more of that talent with the new AI degree.

The bachelor’s degree program will, “focus more on how complex inputs, such as vision, language and huge databases, can be used to make decisions or enhance human capabilities,” according to Reid Simmons, research professor of robotics and computer science and director of the new AI degree program.

There are 220 faculty in the College of Computer Science, so if a few professors leave, it won't make a big dent in the program. But, in January 2015 Uber hired four faculty and about 35 technical staff from CMU to start Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh.

Following those departures, the college instituted a change in its leave of absence policy, extending it from one to three years in order to give faculty more time to launch projects or ideas at the industry level with the hope that they will return to help develop future AI experts.

“They can come in and do very interesting work. Really solidly work on trying to educate and make the world better through research and then two or three times in their career they can go out and really push this out into the world, " he explained. "I think that’s actually a much better model than the old days of either you’re a faculty member sitting in an office writing papers or you’re in industry reading those papers and trying to turn them into products.” 

But Moore said he is concerned about the industry broadly.

“There are a few of the large companies out there that are being rather predatory. They will try to swoop in and take out a whole group of faculty whereas other companies are trying to be more thoughtful about it. They certainly make the opportunity available for faculty but they don’t do these kind of mass hire attempts,” he said.

He said institutions with strong computer science programs like CMU, Cornell and Georgia Tech have a responsibility to grow operations. He wants to double the size of the school in the next five years, but he said that has to be a thoughtful move.

“There’s no way at CMU that we would want to be producing computer scientists who don’t have a strong humanities and ethics education," he said. "So as computer science grows it actually means growing many traditional parts of the university as well as the high technology parts."