Northeastern University launches Institute for Experiential Artificial Intelligence

Depiction of a person looking at a screen full of code
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Researchers and policymakers have warned that if the autonomous systems we’re increasingly integrating into our lives are not carefully designed, there could be serious repercussions. But there are also opportunities to ensure that human values stay at the center of new advances in artificial intelligence.

At this critical moment, Northeastern is launching the Institute for Experiential Artificial Intelligence, a pioneering research hub that will place human skills and intelligence at the forefront of artificial intelligence development, from the earliest design steps to the final implementation.

The university is allocating $50 million for the new institute, in which leading experts in the humanities, law, public policy, machine learning, health, security, and sustainability will collaborate to develop solutions to the world’s challenges.

“This new institute, the first of its kind, will focus on enabling artificial intelligence and humans to collaborate interactively around solving problems in health, security, and sustainability,” Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun wrote to the university’s students, faculty, and staff. “We believe that the true promise of AI lies not in its ability to replace humans, but to optimize what humans do best.”

In launching the Institute for Experiential Artificial Intelligence, Northeastern will  hire as many as 30 faculty members to design the future of autonomous systems, one in which people are helped by machines rather than replaced by them. Including the university’s existing experts in this field, up to 50 professors and researchers will collaborate across a variety of disciplines, including computing, digital humanities, law, and materials science.

In addition, by accessing Northeastern’s global network of co-op employers, the institute will develop new technologies and applications in partnership with businesses, government, and non-governmental organizations.

The institute launches in advance of an anticipated announcement by the National Science Foundation to invest up to $1 billion on a broad research initiative to advance U.S. leadership in artificial intelligence, adding to the growing list of government agencies that are committing strategic thinking and dollars to the development of artificial intelligence.

The expansion of human-based artificial intelligence builds on interdisciplinary efforts that are already underway at Northeastern. The university’s Institute for Experiential Robotics brings together engineers, ethicists, sociologists, and economists to develop machines that can learn and execute human behaviors. 

The Ethics Institute connects researchers from the disciplines of philosophy, information science, communications, public administration, anthropology, and law to discuss ethical issues such as information privacy, intellectual property, intellectual freedom, and censorship.

At the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, researchers collaborate with experts in industry, government, and academia to develop and safeguard technologies such as smart applications, self-driving cars, and delivery drones. 

The Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things convenes 130 researchers across disciplines, including cybersecurity and resilience, to pioneer research on smart technologies.

Researchers in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences have used machine learning to predict outbursts in individuals with autism, and have examined algorithms for biases to ensure they are used ethically. 

They have also used machine learning to help figure out which apps on your phone are leaking your personal information, and developed a tool that uses machine learning algorithms and natural language processing models to sift through and make sense of scientific literature for healthcare providers.

“Our research here is use-inspired, and we have the ability to cross over from classic computer science into engineering, into ethics, into data visualization and art,” said James C. Bean, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern. “We need to be creating those AI modules that are defining what the new culture is going to be.”

Earlier this year, a collaboration between researchers in Northeastern’s Ethics Institute and global professional services company Accenture produced a report that provided organizations a framework for creating ethics committees to help guide the development of smart machines.

Northeastern also prepares students to thrive in the age of artificial intelligence by emphasizing uniquely human skills in the form of a curriculum called humanics. Humanics integrates technological, data, and human literacies into learning in order to prepare people to do what intelligent machines cannot: create, collaborate and empathize.

The humanics curriculum is a key piece of the university’s strategic plan, Northeastern 2025—a blueprint for Northeastern’s evolution in the age of artificial intelligence. 

“We are building on substantial strengths across all colleges in the university,” said Carla Brodley, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. “Experiential AI is highly relevant to our mission.”

Ian Thomsen contributed to this report.

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