URI to launch Artificial Intelligence lab

KINGSTON, R.I., Dec. 20, 2017—Students across the University of Rhode Island will soon have access to a new laboratory where they can explore research involving robotics, wearable technology, smart cities and public policy.

The Artificial Intelligence Lab, or AI Lab, is scheduled to open in fall 2018 at the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons on the Kingston campus. The lab is the first of its kind in a college library nationwide, says the lab’s team.

The lab will support two complementary goals. On the one hand, it will enable students to explore projects on robotics, natural language processing, smart cities, smart homes, the Internet of Things and big data, with tutorials at beginner through advanced levels. It will also serve as a hub for ideas—a place for faculty, students and the community to explore the social, ethical, economic and even artistic implications of these emerging technologies.

“The acceleration of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data-driven tools presents humanity with one of its most fascinating social challenges,” says Cheryl Foster, Carnegie Professor of Philosophy at URI and a founding member of the lab. “Prominent scientists, entrepreneurs and philosophers from around the world are engaged in vigorous disagreements about the risks and benefits of these tools, as well as how we should regulate them. The AI Lab will serve as a place for the URI community to explore these issues alongside those related to the nuts and bolts of programming.”

Students are eager to get experience in the hands-on and conceptual dimensions offered by the lab. “It will be a great place for students to stretch their minds,” says Kunal Mankodiya, assistant professor in URI’s Department of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering, who is a lead on the initiative. “Last spring, the vice provost for Enrollment Management ran a contest for admitted students to write about the issues they wanted to study in college. Artificial Intelligence was at the top of the list, and our team came together to create a space for that.”

Putting the lab in the University’s library is strategic. Organizers hope that students majoring in different fields, from philosophy and ethics to computer science and biomedical engineering, will visit the lab and use it to brainstorm about important social and ethical issues today and create cutting-edge projects.

The Colleges of Engineering, Arts and Sciences and University Libraries worked together to create the lab, reflecting its interdisciplinary quality and collaborative focus. In addition to Mankodiya and Foster, other founding members are Joan Peckham, professor of computer science and coordinator of the Statistics/Big Data Initiative and Data Science Programs; and Karim Boughida, Harrison Dekker and Angelica Ferria of University Libraries.

Students across the URI campus will find a home in the new lab where they can learn to design “smart” projects. After the lab opens, organizers will host workshops and hack-a-thons to welcome students to the space, a 600-square-foot room on the library’s first floor. The goal is to get students thinking about technology, language and life in new ways.

The lab will have three zones. Zone 1 will host workstations based on a supercomputer where students, beginning with introductory exercises, can easily transition to projects at the next level. Zone 2 will provide more hands-on experience for students to develop lab projects on deep learning robots, the Internet of Things, smart cities and big data analytics. Zone 3 is specifically designed to encourage students to collaborate and discuss ethical issues with experts.

“I have been thinking about AI for a long time so I engaged with key players on campus to create this lab,” says Boughida, dean of University Libraries. “We wanted to demystify AI for our students and community. Artificial Intelligence is soon to be pervasive, and the library is the perfect interdisciplinary space to offer creative engagement and learning opportunities.”

“With partners in Arts and Sciences and in Engineering the AI Lab will be able to support courses across the University that examine public policy, artificially created art, and how to teach robots to learn, among other things,” says Ferria, media curator for University Libraries. “The ability to offer such an adaptable resource to URI’s students is exciting.”