The Machine Learning Revolution
On February 7th, 2019, my technology-related news alerts were particularly active as Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a two-billion-dollar partnership with IBM to develop an Artificial Intelligence Hardware Center at the SUNY Polytechnic campus in Albany.i Students and faculty of the university also received the exciting news via a Research News post,ii and in a “Message from the Office of the President” email from our very own Interim President, Dr. Grace Wang. Echoes of the announcement and its implications appeared sporadically, only to be magnified even more on February 11th, 2019, by President Donald Trump’s “Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence.”iii All this mediatic commotion made me stop and think; what is artificial intelligence, or A.I., in contemporary terms? What do advances in A.I. mean for government, industry, and academia? And what can New York State hope to gain from our federal and state executives’ new focus on A.I.?
Artificial Intelligence is a term used, in theory and in practice, to describe computerized systems which perform tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence to accomplish. A.I. is often used interchangeably with the term machine learning, though machine learning itself is a task carried out by A.I. systems.iv Tasks that traditionally require human intelligence are those that involve visual perception; recognizing and generating human-like speech; recognizing and translating written texts; and complex decision making based on multiple diverse inputs. The hardware that will emerge from these new federal and state initiatives will be designed to facilitate these tasks and more. Advances in A.I. hardware also promise to speed up association between diverse datasets; like the statistics that come out of large-scale scientific case studies, or the data streams collected from Internet-of-Things devices that government and private entities use in scenarios from dairy farmsv to civil engineering projects.vi
Like many other historical advances in computing, A.I. represents a paradigm shift in terms of our ability to sort through vast collections of data, draw statistical correlations, and make important decisions. For government, A.I. promises to highlight anomalous information filed in connection with official transactions. For industry, A.I. is already putting its mark on multiple vertical markets; automotive – in the form of software-assisted and self-driving vehicles; banking, finance, and insurance – via advanced fraud detection software; energy, manufacturing, and raw materials – through automated data collection and rapid prototyping ; and even technology, telecommunications, and transportation – in the form of improved physical and digital logistics.vii
Modern life is chock full of specialized computer chips that work behind the scenes to deliver our voice and data communications; known as application-specific integrated circuits, or A.S.I.C. These and other integrated circuits that significantly speed up commonplace digital transactions are already a focus of academic research and development at the Albany NanoTech Complex. Here, we host the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, multiple advanced laboratory and fabrication facilities, New York State’s own Office of Information Technology Servicesviii (where I work), and other industry leaders like Samsung, Tokyo Electron Limited, Applied Materials, and GlobalFoundries.ix In such close quarters; students, faculty, and researchers have an almost arms-length-access to major industry leaders. This accessibility will no doubt continue to ensure a smooth flow of technology transfer between SUNY institutions and their many partners, including IBM.x
On several topics, society’s hopes and those of our politicians don’t always line up. When considering emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, however, we can enjoy some rare agreement between our working and political castes. In the nearly identical series of official press releases; New York State Senator Neil D. Breslin expressed his content at maintaining our state, and the region as a whole, “as a global hub and leader in technological advancement.” He and SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson also touted a soon-to-be partnership with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in nearby Troy to recruit the best up-and-coming researchers and developers. State Assembly Members Patricia Fahy and John T. McDonald III continued to express their hopes and expectations of increased job and investment growth in our state’s Capital Region, while Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan thanked the teams at Empire State Development and SUNY Poly for renewing their dedication to New York’s “Tech Valley.”xi The future of artificial intelligence certainly seems bright, as the world watches New York State step up to the ‘technological plate.’