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Northeastern names Usama Fayyad to lead Institute of Experiential Artificial Intelligence

Northeastern's Institute of Experiential Artificial Intelligence focuses on application-driven, human-centered AI. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Usama Fayyad, a longtime leader in data science and AI, will be joining Northeastern as the inaugural executive director for the Institute of Experiential Artificial Intelligence.

Usama Fayyad as the inaugural Executive Director for the Institute of Experiential Artificial Intelligence. Photo courtesy Usama Fayyad

“Usama will work with senior leadership to create a pioneering research hub that places human skills and intelligence at the forefront of artificial intelligence development, from the earliest design steps to final implementation,” wrote David Madigan, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, in a letter welcoming Fayyad to the university.

Launched a year ago, the institute is university-wide in scope but will work especially closely with the Roux Institute in Portland, Maine.

The Institute of Experiential Artificial Intelligence focuses on application-driven, human-centered AI, says Carla Brodley, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, has championed the institute based on his belief that “the true promise of AI lies not in its ability to replace humans, but to optimize what humans do best.”

Fayyad, whose work has been advancing AI for three decades, believes in the institute’s mission as well as its opportunity to become a world leader.

“I used to call it ‘pragmatic AI’ and ‘hybrid AI,’ but I think ‘experiential AI’ is a better term for it—which is AI with humans in the loop,” says Fayyad, whose leadership of the institute will commence “Northeastern is committed to building the top research institute in the world when it comes to experiential AI. One of the reasons I’m excited about that is because no one has yet claimed the space. There is a chance to be number one [in the field].”

Since 2008, Fayyad has been leading Open Insights, a company that he founded near Seattle that deploys data-driven solutions to grow revenue from data assets. 

Prior to that, he was co-founder and chief technical officer of OODA Health, a venture capital-funded company. He served as global chief data officer and group managing director at Barclays Bank in London, after having been appointed executive chairman of Oasis 500. He has been chairman and chief executive of several startups, including Blue Kangaroo Corp., DMX Group, and digiMine Inc. 

When one of Fayyad’s startups was acquired by Yahoo! in 2004, he became the first person known to hold the title of chief data officer; there are now thousands of chief data officers at companies around the world. He founded Yahoo! Research Labs and built Yahoo!’s Strategic Data Solutions group.

Fayyad has served in leadership positions at Microsoft, and he founded the Machine Learning Systems group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where his work on machine learning earned him the top Excellence in Research award from Caltech, and a U.S. Government medal from NASA.

Fayyad holds more than 30 patents and has published more than 100 technical articles on data mining, data science, AI and machine learning, and databases. He has edited two influential books on data mining/data science and served as Founding Editor-in-Chief on two key industry journals.

He is co-founder of KDD—the largest international data science conference—and SIGKDD, the Association for Computing Machinery’s special interest group on knowledge discovery and data mining.

“I have known and respected Usama for three decades, and he is literally perfect for this position,” says Brodley. “We had an amazing slate of candidates, and he just really fit the bill with both his research experience and his entrepreneurship. He is going to be building experiential AI across the entire Northeastern network.”

Fayyad says he is looking forward to getting to know the Northeastern community in order to develop interdisciplinary partnerships that can help the institute confront many of the issues that are hindering experiential AI.

“This is a continued evolution of a path I’ve been on all of my professional life,” Fayyad says. “The first order of business is mapping out the strengths of the university; and mapping out the market weaknesses of what is missing and where are the real opportunities in experiential AI; and then figuring out how to leverage our strengths and resources that we will have at the institute in order to address those areas with a maximum impact. That gives you the ability to take the lead in certain areas that are in high demand, and it gives you the ability to attract the best minds to join in the journey because you are addressing problems that many of the other great research institutions are not working on.

“That’s how I normally like to do it, because you can add value and achieve distinction very quickly.”

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