The US is falling behind in artificial intelligence. Here is what one university is doing about it.
Welcome to From Florida, a podcast that showcases the student success, teaching excellence and groundbreaking research taking place at the University of Florida.
To thrive economically and be globally competitive, the U.S. needs to add many more workers who understand and have expertise in artificial intelligence. In this episode, David Reed, inaugural director of the Artificial Intelligence Academic Initiative Center explains how the University of Florida is taking a comprehensive approach to meet that need. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, James Sullivan and Emma Richards. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.
Nicci Brown: Artificial intelligence is a part of so much of our day to day lives and it's spurring major societal and economic change. Because of this, the University of Florida is taking a unique approach to this technology. Instead of AI being a focus in only certain colleges or programs, UF is integrating artificial intelligence across the university, from instruction to research to university operations and in disciplines ranging from medicine to the arts.
I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and today on From Florida we are going to talk about the University of Florida's AI initiative and specifically the role of the Artificial Intelligence Academic Initiative Center in carrying this work forward. Our guest today is David Reed, the inaugural director of the center. Welcome, David.
David Reed: Thank you very much. It's great to be with you today.
Nicci Brown: David, as I mentioned in the introduction, you are the Inaugural Director of the Artificial Intelligence Academic Initiative Center, AI Squared, as we call it. First of all, congrats and, second, what is the purpose of the center?
David Reed: Well, thank you. So, the purpose of the center is really to support all things artificial intelligence at the University of Florida and that's everything from marketing about what we do to enhancing the courses that we offer our students, getting faculty up to speed on artificial intelligence, adding it to their research repertoire if they don't use those techniques already and really just everything and anything related to artificial intelligence.
Nicci Brown: Quite a large role.
David Reed: It is.
Nicci Brown: Could you tell us more about the reasons UF made artificial intelligence a focal point for our campus?
David Reed: Absolutely. So, first of all, artificial intelligence is a big catchall term and we use it for all kinds of things. It's a technique to mine large amounts of data. It's a way to help computers make decisions. And so, when we talk about AI, we really are talking about a broad set of different kinds of things. But what we're finding and what industry partners are telling us is that artificial intelligence is now being used in one way or another in disciplines from A to Z. Everything imaginable. Anywhere you can collect large amounts of data, AI has the potential to really help you understand your business or your art or anything that you're doing. And so, because of that, we feel like it's important for all of our students to have the opportunity to learn how AI is already being used in their current discipline.
Nicci Brown: And so what does that look like as far as courses that are available and student enrollment in those courses?
David Reed: Well, we have over 200 courses in AI and data science already on the books here at UF that students can take and at the moment we have over 6,000 students taking those courses. So, we know that our students are engaged. They already understand the importance of artificial intelligence. But we've also erected things like an undergraduate certificate where an undergraduate can take three courses in AI and come away with really good skills about applying artificial intelligence right in their discipline.
Nicci Brown: Also, there are opportunities for staff at the university as well to learn more about AI.
David Reed: Indeed. We have a whole suite of professional development courses. These are meant to upskill workers who are already employed or people who want to become employed with artificial intelligence skills. They can take these courses and little-by-little they learn the ins and outs of artificial intelligence, but, more importantly, and this is true for our students as well, they learn how artificial intelligence is used right in the specific discipline that they're working in.
Nicci Brown: And I'll fess up, I've signed up for the courses. I've yet to get started. But one of the ones that I was really fascinated in learning more about was the ethics course.
David Reed: Indeed. So artificial intelligence done without an ethical framework often goes awry very quickly and so we require an ethics course for the undergraduate certificate. We also require it for the undergraduate major that we have in data science. It's critically important to understand how artificial intelligence can either be misused in malevolent ways or just misunderstood and used poorly. And the ethics course really helps people understand that.
Nicci Brown: So, we're hiring faculty with specialized expertise in AI to achieve this across-the-curriculum activity and they truly do cross all disciplines. We've heard about some of the courses. Can you tell us a little more about the research that's happening at UF?
David Reed: Sure. So, we've hired over 100 new faculty in artificial intelligence and they're spread across all 16 of the colleges that we have here at UF, and so they really are all over campus. So, for instance, we hired David Grant in the Department of Philosophy within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and he actually studies the ethics of artificial intelligence. Specifically, he studies how organizations use AI to make really high impact decisions.
So, there's just these wide uses of artificial intelligence. Joel Davis in business studies how executives and consumers incorporate AI advice into their decision-making process about buying or selling products. Nicolas Gauthier, an anthropologist at the Florida Museum, uses AI to study human-caused changes in the environment, whether it's in the past or the present or predicting the future, and that's really where the AI comes in. And then, lastly, Mickey MacKie in geology uses artificial intelligence to study glaciers. I mean, it just really is the applicability of artificial intelligence is so widespread.
Nicci Brown: Yeah, it's incredible when you think about, and we have had Mickey on the program before, this person who is studying at the University of Florida or researching at the University of Florida and also teaching and she's studying glaciers. It really is this broad range, for sure. What are some of the priority initiatives that you've developed for the center because this is an enormous task that you have and in an inaugural role you really have to set the playing field.
David Reed: Indeed. And because it's university-wide, the projects that we have really vary tremendously. We're trying to support faculty, for one, so we are inviting 40 faculty who study artificial intelligence to a communications workshop that lasts all year, it’s seven-day long sessions, that'll be starting this fall, where we can teach faculty how to talk about their research in artificial intelligence in new and basically concrete ways. Artificial intelligence can be hard to understand sometimes so we're helping them in their communications efforts. That's one thing.
We're also working with the Career Connection Center. If you're not familiar with them on campus, they are ranked No. 1 or No. 2 every year in career services helping our students get into meaningful jobs after they graduate. But we're working with them to better describe the skills that our students are learning in their courses so that it translates on their resume to jobs so that employers can really understand what it is that they've learned and how it's applicable in the jobs that they're applying for.
We're also trying to incentivize faculty to build out new artificial intelligence courses, and we're doing that in a number of different ways so that students have more opportunity to take courses in artificial intelligence.
And then, lastly, one of our projects coming up this fall is called AI Days and that's October 27 and 28. We're trying to get the whole campus engaged in artificial intelligence. And, for students, we have a pitch competition where they pitch a business idea. We also have a hackathon. And for those two events for students there's $50,000 in cash prizes for the winners of the pitch competition and the hackathon. So that event will be an opportunity for faculty, staff, and students to learn a whole lot more about artificial intelligence.
Nicci Brown: You mentioned a little bit earlier about industry and what you are hearing from partners and, certainly one of the things, particularly as a public institution, as a flagship for the state, we do talk about our service to the state of Florida and I think more broadly to the nation. How do you see that all intertwining? What are those kind of communications that you're having?
David Reed: Yeah, absolutely. So, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a commission from the federal government, produced a final report last year that said that the United States is woefully behind in producing people who understand AI and can use it and that the United States is vulnerable both in terms of economic competitiveness but also in terms of defensive competitiveness. And so, they called for a better and larger AI workforce by 2025. And that's something that we've taken very seriously. That's why we're no longer teaching AI just in the College of Engineering but spreading that education across the full breadth of the university. So, what we're hearing from industry as well as federal partners and others is they need a skilled workforce immediately. And so, we've taken that to heart. We're the only university really doing this. We're really out in front of all of our competitors by trying to create an AI workforce, people who can apply AI specifically in their discipline, and we're going to be doing that within a year or so easily.
Nicci Brown: I've heard as well that some of the things that we're doing, particularly in the College of Ed, but also in the College of Engineering, is looking at K through 12 and how even if we have students who may not feel that university is for them they can become literate in what AI means and that will help them in their future as well.
David Reed: Yeah, absolutely. So those faculty that you've talked about here at UF are working with the Florida Department of Education to create the nation's first artificial intelligence curriculum for public schools. So, typically, in middle schools, but also in high schools, they're starting to teach the concepts of artificial intelligence and data science, and there are two reasons for that. That will prepare some students to come to university and be more prepared for what they experience here. But for those who don't, they're going to be much better citizens in a digital world if they understand the data that's being collected around them and how it's used and so forth. And so it really is important given the digital world that we live in, given how much artificial intelligence is being used around us all the time, the more literate we are about that, the better.
Nicci Brown: And I think there is something to be said in this range just in terms of democratization of information and access to knowledge and getting that available across all groups. What is the university doing as far as that's concerned?
David Reed: Yeah. That's a key component of what we're trying to do. There are many ways in which we're trying to democratize AI. One is we're teaching it across all disciplines here at UF. That's probably the most straightforward. It doesn't matter what your major is, we have courses designed for you to specifically learn artificial intelligence with no computer programming background required before you start or anything like that.
We're also working with public schools as we just talked about. We're also partnering with a number of other colleges and universities around the state to teach their faculty and their students about artificial intelligence. In particular, Miami-Dade College, which is a Hispanic-serving institution in Miami, we're helping their faculty learn about artificial intelligence so they can create new courses in AI. Also, getting their students to come to the University of Florida for graduate degrees.
In addition, we have FAMU in Tallahassee. We have a partnership with them where we're doing the exact same thing. One with Santa Fe College here in Alachua County and with Palm Beach State College in South Florida, where we're partnering with their faculty, learning together about how they can incorporate artificial intelligence into their courses and, by doing that, their students are also gaining this experience as well.
Nicci Brown: You mentioned those other organizations and other educational institutions. It sounds like what we are building here is a model that is transferable.
David Reed: Indeed. There's nothing special that we're doing here that no other college could do. Anyone could do this if they set their mind to it. We're really fortunate here at UF to have been gifted this incredibly large AI supercomputer and we use it in all kinds of incredible ways, but that's not absolutely necessary for teaching AI across-the-curriculum. This is something that any other college or any other university could do and we're trying to find as many partners who want to walk this road with us and do this with us as we can.
Nicci Brown: That sounds like it's intentional on your part.
David Reed: It is, very much so. When we think about it, we're trying to think of all of the potential ways that a learner might get on the path to learning AI. That includes K-12. It includes tech and vocational schools. It includes community colleges, universities even beyond the University of Florida, and the employees who are already working and need some professional development courses to learn how to use AI. And so, we really want to make this something that everybody can participate in.
Nicci Brown: When we think about AI, quite often the first thing that comes to mind for many people is this cold, dark, futuristic, very non-human approach to things. What would you say to people who have that in their mind?
David Reed: Yeah, I think it's a lot of fun reading science fiction and I like to, too, but the reality of artificial intelligence is it is around us all the time. It's there when you use facial recognition to turn on your iPhone, it's there when Amazon is recommending a product to you, and it isn't going to go away this time.
What we are doing with artificial intelligence, for example, it's not going to replace physicians, but what it can do is allow physicians as a tool to be able to find patients for clinical trials much faster than they would otherwise. It's not going to replace lawyers, for instance, but what it might do is help lawyers understand a wider array of potential case studies or precedents coming before that they can base approaches on in a legal system.
And so it really is the combination of experts in their field utilizing the tools of AI to try and do their work better or in some cases do their work faster. I don't think it's going to create autonomous robots that take over the world, but it is going to help you drive your car more safely and lots of other things, and that kind of work is happening right now. And so that's what’s exciting about artificial intelligence
Nicci Brown: And for people who may fear that this is going to take their job, what would you say to them?
David Reed: Yeah, I think the prognosticators who love to talk about this and who probably know vastly more than I do, they do say that there will be some jobs that are lost as a result of automation. And that's been true for a very long time, all the way back to the first industrial revolution. But it's also creating jobs at the same time where the skills and the decision making that the human possesses, think of creativity, for one, that's really required for a particular process, is always going to be necessary. So, if you're doing something that can be fully automated, then that may take those jobs. But I think for the vast majority of people who learn this technique or these skills, they're going to have opportunities to expand their employment opportunities quite greatly.
Nicci Brown: One of the areas that I've been particularly interested in learning more about is in the applications when it comes to agriculture. And, of course, with IFAS, we are so strong here at the University of Florida and it's such a large part of what we do. Could you share a little bit more about some of the ways it's being applied there?
David Reed: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, so precision agriculture is a way to use decision making as well as lots of data to try and be smarter about the ways in which you're trying to, say, grow plants. And so, for instance, you can send drones over agricultural fields and the drones can capture so much data, visual data, as they pass over, but it takes an enormous amount of human effort and human time to then download and look at those videos. And it's only so much information that a human could get from those images, but if you use artificial intelligence, they can mine through that data much faster and do things like find areas that are over watered or underwater. They can also find areas where there's crop damage due to pests.
And so, in thinking about precision agriculture, just the fact that you can fly drones over an agricultural field and pull from that massive amounts of data that can then be analyzed pretty quickly to make very specific changes to the agricultural process, those kinds of things are now getting to be widespread in their use in agriculture. And there are many more examples of how artificial intelligence is being used in agriculture alone.
Nicci Brown: And connected to that, of course, we're very mindful of our environment and preserving our environment and protecting our environment. I would imagine that AI also has some applications in that realm as well.
David Reed: Absolutely. Here at UF, we have the Center for Coastal Solutions where they monitor water quality and air quality. They have a monitoring station, for instance, in Charlotte Harbor in Southwest Florida and they collect massive amounts of data very, very quickly from these monitoring stations and from satellites and other things. And so with that, the company, SAS, it's a statistical analysis software company, they've partnered with the Center for Coastal Solutions to create a data model that we can then apply artificial intelligence to. Just how you store the data is critically important to the process of artificial intelligence. But what they'll be able to do is use that to monitor real time events like predicting red tides, for instance, and then also, in partnering with UF Health, be able to warn people who might be at risk of the effects of red tide, respiratory illness, for instance, in elderly populations before the red tide actually occurs. And so, whether it's environmental or health or agriculture, AI is really being applied in so many different domains.
Nicci Brown: You mentioned earlier about the courses that our students are signing up for. Could you give us a sampling of some of the names of these courses or what they're focused on?
David Reed: Yeah, absolutely. So, one of the things I've said a couple of times is you get to learn about artificial intelligence right in your discipline. So, for the undergraduate certificate, the students would start out with two required courses, one's called Fundamentals of AI, and it's the one that really allows you to wade into the AI pool from the shallow end.
You don't have to have any prior experience to take this course. And then there's the required ethics course, which is fantastic. But once you take those two, the third course in that series is something that's within your major. So, for instance, there's AI in Media and Society. If you care about how artificial intelligence is used in marketing and communications and media and so forth.
There's one for students who are interested in design and construction. It's called AI in the Built Environment. There's one for agriculture and life sciences called AI and Agriculture and Life Sciences. And there are many of these spread across the full breadth of the university, AI and the social sciences and on and on. So, there are lots of these different courses that are diving in and learning how artificial intelligence is applied right in your major.
Nicci Brown: And for those of us who are in the workforce and want to learn more, what are the options there?
David Reed: We have a series of seven different courses that you can take. There's a one-hour teaser, if you will, that you can listen to. It's free to go to that and you can find these on ai.ufl.edu. But these one-hour courses just give you a flavor of what you would learn. For a small amount of money, there's also a four-hour bite size chunk that you can take. Or you can actually sign up for a faculty led course that's a total of 15 contact hours where you do a much deeper dive. And you can learn about the fundamentals of AI, you can learn about AI ethics, but then you can also learn about AI in these different applications. Agriculture is one of them. Health and medicine is coming online soon. Business is already developed and a couple of others. And so it gives you the opportunity to really learn about AI, both the fundamentals, the ethics and how it applies in your area.
Nicci Brown: I can only imagine how busy you are and some of the things that you come in contact with. Is there anything about your work recently that has surprised you and even you were like, "Wow, this is just beyond anything I imagined?”
David Reed: Well, yeah. The first thing that really surprised me was, we did a tally to see how many students were engaged in artificial intelligence courses, and I was really hoping it would be 1,000 or maybe 2,000 at the most. But to see that we had 6,000 students already taking AI and data science courses when we had really not started any direct marketing to students to tell them about what we were doing, I was very relieved. That was a wonderful sight and it just tells you the students here at UF are obviously in touch with what they're going to need in their professional lives and so they were already seeking out these courses. And that was just great to see.
Nicci Brown: Are there any other partners that you'd like to mention that you're working with right now that people might be interested in knowing about?
David Reed: Absolutely. We've talked about some of the other colleges that we're working with. We've talked about the fact that we're working with the Florida Department of Education on K-12. Those are really important partnerships.
But we also have partnerships with industry too. Our partnership with NVIDIA is one that has even predated our artificial intelligence initiative. They gifted us this incredible AI supercomputer, but they also put on campus an AI Technology Center where two of their engineers are embedded on our campus with our faculty to help them do their research better on HiPerGator AI, the AI supercomputer. We also have a great partnership with IBM where they made their full suite of artificial intelligence software, including Watson, available to our faculty and staff for free.
We also have partnerships with companies like L3Harris. We did professional development for them. Our faculty at the College of Engineering trained some of their trainers on how to train employees about artificial intelligence and data science, and then turned all of that material over to them. And so we've had a wonderful partnership with them. And we're looking for many other industry partners who might want to partner with us in terms of capstone courses for our seniors who have taken a deep dive into artificial intelligence already. That could give those students the ability to solve some real world problems with real world data and really prepare them for the workforce in a deep and meaningful way.
Nicci Brown: It sounds like this approach is inclusive in every sense of the word.
David Reed: It is in that it covers all of our students. It's graduate and undergraduate and professional and we really are trying to make sure that anybody who wants to be included in this can be.
Nicci Brown: David, could you tell us more about the partnership with the SEC?
David Reed: Oh, absolutely. So, in the work that we're doing trying to teach AI across the curriculum, we're trying to find as many partners who will do that alongside us as we possibly can. The Southeastern Conference, what we typically think of as an athletic conference, also partners on academic missions, too, and the latest one is artificial intelligence. And so we've had a working group that have met, all of the schools of the SEC have had a representative at this meeting over the last year where we've talked about what we're doing in the AI and data science space.
For instance, we've heard from faculty at other institutions about AI centers that they have. We've talked about our ability to teach AI across-the-curriculum here at UF. And at this point we're exchanging ideas and discussing best practices for how we can educate our students in artificial intelligence and create a regional center of excellence in the southeastern United States.
Nicci Brown: David, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure speaking with you.
David Reed: Oh, the pleasure was mine. Thank you very much.
Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams, our technical producer is James Sullivan and our editorial assistant is Emma Richards. I hope you’ll tune in next week.