URI opens first artificial intelligence lab housed in a university library

Designed to give students technical skills, understanding of ethical issues

KINGSTON, R.I. — September 25, 2018 — A drone powered by smart technology whirred around a room today in the University of Rhode Island’s Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons. Nearby, demonstrations of an industrial robot hand, smart textiles for medicine and virtual reality fascinated visitors.

The technological wonders on display were all part of the official opening of URI’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, a cross-disciplinary facility open to all students, faculty and staff and the wider Rhode Island community. Visitors to the lab also viewed messages posted around the lab dealing with the social context of artificial intelligence. A Champlin Foundation grant and URI funding support the lab.

Backed by an artificial intelligence supercomputer in Tyler Hall, the lab has six specialized, powerful laptops that can run large data sets and open-source software. Those working in the lab also use technology in the library’s makerspace, which houses 3-D printers and virtual reality technology.

The new lab will give students and faculty the opportunity to research robotics, wearable technology, smart cities, public policy and ethical considerations with AI. The lab will support two complementary goals. It will enable students to explore projects on natural language processing, 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 principal investigator on the project is Kunal Mankodiya, assistant professor of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering, who established a founding team for the lab. Team members are: Cheryl Foster, professor of philosophy; Joan Peckham, professor of computer science and statistics and head of URI’s Big Data Initiative and Data Science Programs; Harrison Dekker, associate professor and data services librarian; Angel Ferria, media curator in the library, Karim Boughida, dean of University libraries, Indrani Mandal, a computer science instructor, and Bohyun Kim, associate professor of URI libraries.

“This laboratory and the faculty and staff who came together to make this lab happen represent the best the University has to offer,” said URI President David M. Dooley. “We are grateful that this lab will be more than just a technology center. It will be a place of ideas, discussion and debate. Society, families, the workplace, hospitals, schools, research enterprises and many more aspects of the 21st century are going to be affected by artificial intelligence in ways we can barely imagine. I congratulate all of you, and offer my deep gratitude to the Champlin Foundation for investing in this endeavor.”

Provost Donald H. DeHayes said Mankodiya and Boughida, along with Professor Foster, deserve credit for working with faculty across URI to make the lab a welcoming space for those majoring in the sciences, engineering, the liberal arts, fine arts and business.

“We are all pleased that this center will bring together students and faculty who have different ways of approaching the development of solutions to challenges and problems,” DeHayes said. “One of the leading features of this University is its ability to bring together people from different disciplines to develop more comprehensive research projects and to improve learning across the curriculum. This facility does exactly that. I expect to see numerous exciting products, software and inventions coming from the Artificial Intelligence Lab.”

Miranda Russo, a sophomore computer science and criminal justice/criminology double major, who is also minoring in digital forensics and Arabic, said she would like to work in AI research and assist in techniques relating to cyber security. The Bucks County, Pennsylvania resident, who spoke at today’s opening, said her goal is to work as a cyber analyst in law enforcement.

“AI has the potential to save us from ourselves and from corruption,” Russo said. “However, to prevent the common fears people have of artificial intelligence, we need to learn about it and how it can be used for good because like all things, it can be used to the detriment of society. Artificial intelligence transcends machine learning, and technology and acts as a step forward in social justice and ethics. It can help analyze and detect bias and help us use data to make decisions. It can make voting systems more secure, root out fake news and help us work for the public good.”

Boughida said people generally know that artificial intelligence is important, but they think it is complicated and so they ignore it.

“Our goal is to make it accessible, to have many conversations around it,” he said. “There are two sides to this lab – the technology side and the side that will address ethics, fairness and biases in artificial intelligence development. Social justice is a critical part of these discussions.

“Having the lab in a library sends a strong message to our community and to others in academia, government and business. The library values intellectual freedom, access and social justice and is a hub for active learning, across the university,” Boughida said.

While the lab is primarily for University students and faculty, it will be open to Rhode Islanders.

“Part of our mission at the University is to support the economic development of the state, and this facility can play a key role. So business people, industry leaders and entrepreneurs will be welcome here,” Boughida said.

The library and lab staff are in the process of creating tutorials and workshops for students and faculty. The lab also has a small conference room for discussions and another room with a viewing window that can be used for experiments.

“The popularity of AI and associated fields is not just limited to industries,” Mankodiya said. “Our team looked at a recent survey asking URI students about topics they wish to see in their curriculum. AI was among the top requests. Modern students know where the market is going. The AI Lab is a timely response to the demand.”

Mankodiya said the team worked out a plan to invite other faculty to use the facility as part of their curriculum. He further added “Teaching AI is not a trivial task. It really needs a team and an infrastructure. We now have both. ”