New Institute Infuses AI with an Inter-Disciplinary Twist

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Amanda Stent, director of the newly formed Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence at Colby College, shares her vision for the institute and the benefits that an inter-disciplinary approach to understanding and using AI could bring to students in their careers and the communities and businesses they work in.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is permeating many aspects of our personal lives and business operations. The technology is advancing at breakneck speeds, but perhaps AI’s biggest limitation is the concerns about using AI ethically, responsibly, and in ways that help the world.

The newly formed Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence at Colby College seeks to address these issues by melding a liberal arts education with an understanding of AI. This semester, the Institute started its first courses and programs with the intent of helping students and faculty to research, create, and apply AI and machine learning (ML) across disciplines.

Amanda Stent, Institute Director

Heading up the Institute as its inaugural director is Amanda Stent, one of the leading authorities on natural language programming (NLP). She most recently served as the NLP architect at Bloomberg L.P. and led the company’s People and Language AI Team.

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RTInsights recently had an opportunity to sit down with her to discuss the vision for the Institute and the benefits that an inter-disciplinary approach to understanding and using AI could bring to students in their careers and the communities and businesses they work in. Here is a summary of our conversation.

RTInsights: What attracted you to this position?

Stent: Maine is gorgeous. That said, what really attracted me to this position are two things. The Institute is about human-centered artificial intelligence. A lot of AI today is done with the intention of replacing or displacing humans or augmenting humans. It would be nice to start with the humans. And the other thing that really attracted me was how interdisciplinary the Institute is. The goal is that every student at Colby should be able to graduate with their subject matter expertise and enough understanding of AI to speak critically about how it is used in their discipline.

RTInsights: What are the high-level goals of the Institute?

Stent: One goal is to enable undergraduate students to be able to speak to AI within their discipline as they go through their careers. Another goal is to facilitate faculty to collaborate both within Colby and outside of Colby with other academics on the application of AI to their discipline.

And we hope to work with the local community and state of Maine to encourage more AI understanding and experience across the whole population of the state. AI affects everybody, so everybody should be able to speak to it.

RTInsights: How will you draw on your industry expertise to achieve those goals?

Stent: In industry, I learned how to be organized working on long-term and short-term goals and breaking long-term goals down into short-term goals. I want to work with students so that they understand how to do that when they go into industry using artificial intelligence. I also have connections across the industry and my research experience that I hope to use to benefit Colby students and faculty. While my area of AI is not the whole of artificial intelligence, I have worked with people from different areas of the AI field.

RTInsights: It seems like an interesting approach to mix liberal arts and AI. How will your students learn about artificial intelligence and be exposed to it?

Stent: A liberal arts education done properly teaches students how to inquire, be curious, and seek to understand things. That’s exactly what AI needs right now, and it needs people who will be a little critical and seek to understand.

The Institute’s efforts have started already. There are multiple courses this fall and this January term that involve AI. There are historians of art who are talking about how AI can be used in their discipline. There are survey researchers who are working on AI within their discipline. There are statisticians at Colby who are teaching classes that include some AI. There’s just going to be a lot going on over the course of the next year.

Also, there are undergraduate projects already started that involve AI, and students seem really excited. I’m getting emails from alumni and parents; that’s encouraging. And I’m looking forward to getting phone calls and emails from the local community, from Waterville, from Augusta, from companies who are local, so that we can start talking about AI as it’s used across the state and in government.

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There’s a lot that we can do. Colby is well-known for its environmental science efforts. We’re working on AI with a science institute out of Boothbay Harbor, Bigelow Labs, that does environmental science. And we’re also talking with the Roux Institute at Northeastern about how we can collaborate because we provide undergraduate education, and they provide graduate education. We want to collaborate broadly across academia.

RTInsights: What will be the benefits or advantages to companies when people with these non-traditional backgrounds come out of the program, get into the workforce, and into communities?

Stent: When we talk about AI, we often think about just computer scientists programming AI and then people just experiencing it the way you would use speech recognition on your smartphone or your smart speaker. But tech involves more than just programmers. Certainly, some graduates from Colby will be programmers and computer scientists who work at tech companies or other companies to develop artificial intelligence. But other graduates from Colby will be project managers of data scientists or subject matter experts who can be true builders and tool users of artificial intelligence within their field. For example, in chemistry and biomedical engineering, they use an increasing amount of AI. They also do some very old-fashioned AI. For example, there’s a big push for ontology building in pharma companies. That’s an area where that can be influential. Some graduates from Colby will end up in finance, and I can tell you that AI is increasingly used in finance.

Artificial intelligence will be used in many fields, and our graduates should be able to speak intelligently to it so that their companies will benefit. We also hope that many Colby graduates will go onto graduate school where they can use AI. Some of them may even found companies, and some of those companies may stay in Maine, which would be fantastic.

Salvatore Salamone

About Salvatore Salamone

Salvatore Salamone is a physicist by training who has been writing about science and information technology for more than 30 years. During that time, he has been a senior or executive editor at many industry-leading publications including High Technology, Network World, Byte Magazine, Data Communications, LAN Times, InternetWeek, Bio-IT World, and Lightwave, The Journal of Fiber Optics. He also is the author of three business technology books.

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