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MIT announces new College of Computing by Chris Peterson SM '13

coordinating the teaching, research, and ethics of AI across all programs of study

October 16, 2018

Yesterday, President Reif sent a letter to all members of the MIT community announcing the creation of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. He wrote:

This new College is our strategic response to a global phenomenon — the ubiquity of computing and the rise of AI. In this new world, we are building on MIT’s established leadership in these fields to position the Institute for decades to come as a world hub of education, research and innovation, and to prepare our students to lead in every domain.

To state the obvious, AI in particular is reshaping geopolitics, our economy, our daily lives and the very definition of work. It is rapidly enabling new research in every discipline and new solutions to daunting problems. At the same time, it is creating ethical strains and human consequences our society is not yet equipped to control or withstand.

In response, we are reshaping MIT.

By giving MIT’s five Schools a shared structure for collaborative education, research and innovation, the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing aims to:

* foster breakthroughs in computing, particularly artificial intelligence — actively informed by the wisdom of other disciplines;
* deliver the power of AI tools to researchers in every field; and
* advance pioneering work on AI’s ethical use and societal impact.

Most distinctively, by adding new integrated curricula and degee programs in nearly every field, the College will equip students to be as fluent in computing and AI as they are in their own disciplines — and ready to use these digital tools wisely and humanely to help make a better world.

To be clear: In this pivotal AI moment, society has never needed the liberal arts — the path to wise, responsible citizenship — more than it does now. It is time to educate a new generation of technologists in the public interest.

In an accompanying FAQ document, the MIT News Office provided additional background information, which explains, among other things, the academic structure of the new entity:

Q: Why is this a college, rather than a school? What is the difference?

A: The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will work with and across all five of MIT’s existing schools. Its naming as a college differentiates it from the five schools, and signals that it is an Institute-wide entity: The College is designed with cross-cutting education and research as its primary missions.

Q: Why, and how, will the College connect to the schools and other parts of MIT?

A: As MIT’s senior leaders have engaged with faculty and departments across campus, many have spoken of how their fields are being transformed by modern computational methods — specifically, by access to large data sets and the tools to learn from them. Some of the most exciting new work in fields like political science, economics, linguistics, anthropology, and urban studies — as well as in various disciplines in science and engineering — is being made possible when advanced computational capabilities are brought to these fields.

The key connector of the College to MIT’s five schools with be the 25 “bridge” faculty: joint faculty appointments linking the College with departments across MIT. With this new structure, MIT aims to educate students who are “bilingual” — adept in computing, as well as in their primary field. The College will also connect with the rest of MIT through its work to develop shared computing resources — infrastructure, instrumentation, and technical staffing.

The whole document is worth reading, but I want to specifically amplify the following points, which are of personal, professional, and (I’d argue) existential interest:

Q: What ethical concerns does MIT have about AI or specific areas of AI research?

A: Advances in computing, and artificial intelligence in particular, have the power to alter the fabric of society. The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing aims to be not only a center of advances in computing, but also a place for teaching and research on relevant policy and ethics — to better ensure that the pioneering technologies of the future are responsibly implemented in support of the greater good.

Q: What kind of programs will there be around ethics and advances in computing?

A: Launching the College will involve both an expansion of existing programs and the creation of entirely new ones — with some of these new programs exploring the intersection of ethics and computing. Within this space, the College will offer prestigious undergraduate research opportunities, graduate fellowships in ethics and AI, a seed-grant program for faculty, and a fellowship program to attract distinguished individuals from other universities, government, industry, and journalism.

Q: Why is this focus on ethics important?

A: Technologies reflect the values of those who make them. For this reason, technological advancements must be accompanied by the development of ethical guidelines that anticipate the risks of such enormously powerful innovations. MIT must make sure that the leaders who graduate from the Institute offer the world both technological proficiency and human wisdom — the cultural, ethical, and historical consciousness to use technology for the common good. MIT is founding the College, in part, to educate students in every discipline to responsibly use and develop AI and computing technologies to help make a better world.

In President Reif’s letter, he observes that this is the most profound restructuring of MIT since the establishment of SHASS in the 1950s. As the time, the Lewis Report, led by MIT Professor (and alumnus of the Manhattan Project) Warren K. Lewis, wrestled to redefine the necessary foundations of a technical education in a time of increasing automation, unstable democracies, and and rapidly evolving, potentially dangerous technologies. It advocated, among other things, the establishment of a school of social and humanistic education to make sure that these concerns were foundational to the MIT education.

In some respects, I see this College of Computing as being a similar move, driven by a similar motivation. Computational thinking is becoming, but has not yet fully become, a basic component of what it means to be educated along with literacy and numeracy. At the same time, the ethical elements of computing (and critically, who decides them), are increasingly relevant as we build things that think, and things to think with.

How will this impact the undergraduate education to which readers of this post may aspire? According to the FAQ:

Q: Do you expect that this new structure could change the balance of undergraduate majors at MIT?

A: About 40 percent of MIT undergraduates now major either in computer science alone or in joint programs combining computer science with some other field. It is expected that this new structure will allow interested students to gain a strong background in computer science while also focusing on a paired discipline that’s of greatest interest to them. By greatly expanding the range of disciplines that can be paired with computer science in a coherent undergraduate degree, this move will support MIT’s students in their clear desire to combine computer science with other fields where they might eventually apply their computing skills.

Q: Will current students be able to switch to the College?

A: In general, MIT students are part of the school or college that is home to their academic program. Because the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) will become part of the new College, it is expected that the majority of EECS students will automatically become students within the new College. Students within MIT’s five other schools will, of course, be able to access the College’s faculty, courses, and facilities: Indeed, the College’s cross-Institute structure is intended to make it accessible to students across MIT, and there may be opportunities for students to be affiliated with both the College and their home department and school.

In other words, it will concentrate and expand resources for students who are majoring in computer science, while also making it easier for students who are not majoring in computer science, but who wish to build skills in computing that are useful to their primary field of work and research, to do so. It will likely expand the already-existing interdisciplinary programs that combine computing with another field. It won’t impact the application process or likelihood of admissions, because we don’t admit by school or program or field of interest.

I am incredibly excited about this announcement and the future it enables for MIT as an institution and undergraduate education as an enterprise. And I definitely recommend reading the letterFAQs, and release about the College.