CMU’s Reid Simmons to head first AI major at a U.S. university
Artificial intelligenceJewish professor heading launch of AI degree at CMU

CMU’s Reid Simmons to head first AI major at a U.S. university

Simmons, a member of Beth El Congregation and author of a kosher cooking blog, is leading the fall launch of the first AI degree to be offered at an American university.

The Gates Center on the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh. CMU will launch the first undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence at an American University this fall. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The Gates Center on the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh. CMU will launch the first undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence at an American University this fall. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Digital assistants like Alexa and Siri may be ubiquitous, and self-driving Ubers are no longer surprising on the streets of Pittsburgh, but the field of artificial intelligence is actually in its infancy, according to Reid Simmons, a research professor of robotics and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

CMU will be doing its part to advance the discipline and be a dominant player in AI research with its fall launch of the first AI undergraduate degree to be offered at an American university. Simmons, a longtime member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills and the author of the cooking blog “A to Z: Keeping it Kosher,” has been tapped to direct the new program.

The time was right for CMU to develop an AI major, according to Simmons.

“This is a convergence of interest of industry and a maturation of AI techniques and concepts,” he said. “There’s enough now that we understand to be able to teach it in a rigorous way — to get to the basic understanding of what the techniques do and why they do them, and the basic scientific underpinnings of the field.”

Reid Simmons will direct the new artificial intelligence major at Carnegie Mellon University. (Photo courtesy of Reid Simmons)
There is a “real burst in interest from industry, and government now, too,” Simmons said. “This administration is very high on artificial intelligence.”

That interest, he said, relates to a host of AI applications including defense, cyber-
security, job training and surveillance.

That the nation’s first undergraduate degree for AI will be established at CMU is fitting, considering that the university in Oakland has been a leader in AI since the 1950s, when its researchers, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell, were among the first pioneers in the field.

The current pervasiveness of AI technology indicates its staying power, said Simmons, and signaled that it would be prudent for the university to offer its computer science students a major in that field.

“In the ’80s, there was a big AI rush and for various reasons it petered out,” he noted. “People used to call it the ‘AI winter.’ And I think one of the reasons why [CMU] may have been a bit hesitant to jump in is because you want to be sure that this is not just a flash in the pan. You don’t want graduates coming out of the program with nowhere to go.”

CMU administrators are now certain that its AI students will not face that problem, and they anticipate a high demand for graduates with the major, according to Simmons.

“We did a little bit of a market survey before we committed to the program,” he said. “We contacted some of the major companies, and the response was basically unanimous that they would hire however many graduates we produced. The real question is, ‘Are we going to produce enough?’”

The AI undergraduate enrollment initially will be limited to about 30 to 35 new students each year. In its fall 2018 semester, a limited number of second- and third-year students who have already taken a substantial number of relevant courses will be allowed to apply to join the new AI degree program as well.

‘A larger societal change’

AI technology is poised to effect significant societal changes, Simmons said, but he thinks radical shifts are still a couple decades away.

“I think 10 years is probably too short a time frame for AI to have a radical impact,” he said. “But I think 10 years will be the start of a boon in self-driving cars, and we will probably see technology that assists drivers, like automatic breaking and lane-keeping and automated parking. I think in 10 years that will become more prevalent.”

A larger societal change, he said, may be coming in the offerings of the auto industry, with manufacturers moving from sales to a service industry in which they provide ride-sharing with autonomic vehicles, obviating the need for most individuals to own their own cars.

Home assistants, like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, will be more prevalent in the coming years, helping consumers schedule appointments and order things online, Simmons predicted.

The new technology also will be used to improve education, he said.

“I think there is going to be a boon in cognitive assistance for training and re-training,” Simmons explained. “People often learn new skills through apprenticeship. The human apprentice can’t be there all the time, but you could have a voice in your ear that helps you with food preparation, for instance. And there may also be assistance for people with minor cognitive impairments, reminding them to turn off the stove or how to get from place to place.”

The concern with ‘superintelligence’

While Simmons is optimistic that the field of AI will help make the world a better place, there are naysayers. Among the most prominent is Elon Musk, who for years has been warning about the potential dangers of AI, including in a new documentary called “Do You Trust This Computer?” Musk claims that a form of AI called “superintelligence” could create an “immortal dictator from which we can never escape.” His opinions on the perils posed by AI went viral following a speech he delivered in 2014 at M.I.T. in which he suggested that AI was probably humanity’s “biggest existential threat.”

As part of CMU’s AI major, though, students will be required to take an ethics course, and Simmons aims to infuse the science courses with ethics education as well.

“Almost any technology can be used for good or for ill, and even if you are not intending it to be used in inappropriate ways, it’s very easy to fall into that trap where we don’t really pay attention to it and things happen,” he said. It is “very important to us” to ensure that the next generation of AI scientists are versed in ethics and social responsibility.

Artificial intelligence specialists “have never been more important, in shorter supply or in greater demand by employers,” Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science, said in a statement. “Carnegie Mellon has an unmatched depth of expertise in AI, making us uniquely qualified to address this need for graduates who understand how the power of AI can be leveraged to help people.”

One unique aspect of the new program, Simmons said, is the fusion of courses from multiple departments in the School of Computer Science, most prominently Machine Learning, the Robotics Institute and the Language Technologies Institute.

“It’s interesting that we don’t have an AI department, but we have a lot of AI expertise throughout the school, and we are all coming together and coordinating our efforts to put this new program together,” Simmons said. “What’s important to us is not just to teach the kids the fundamentals of the area so that not only can they utilize AI techniques, but they can understand why they are using them, and more importantly, to develop the techniques of the future.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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