Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun hosts IBM Research’s Dario Gil for chat about the future of artificial intelligence

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern has a conversation with Dr. Dario Gil, IBM Chair, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, during the Presidential Speaker Series. Screenshot by Northeastern University

The COVID-19 pandemic is inspiring scientists to use artificial intelligence and quantum computing to solve global problems, said Dario Gil, the director of IBM Research, in an optimistic chat that was hosted by Northeastern.

David Luzzi, Senior Vice Provost for Research and Vice President of the Innovation Campus at Burlington, Massachusetts, moderates the conversation. Screenshot by Northeastern University

“We are about to enter a new era of accelerated scientific discovery,” Gil said Wednesday at the online event, The Urgency of Science. His presentation and an ensuing discussion with viewers was introduced by Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, and moderated by David Luzzi, senior vice provost for research and vice president of Northeastern’s Innovation Campus.

Upcoming discoveries will revolve around artificial intelligence and quantum computing, predicted Gil, who leads an IBM Research team of more than 3,000 researchers at 19 locations on six continents. In 2016, IBM became the first company to make quantum computing available through the cloud, which has made it accessible to 250,000 users around the world.

One of Gil’s aims is to create problem-solving organizations that transcend geography and culture. The global community’s failure to respond to COVID-19 in a unified way has underscored the need, as Gil sees it, for an international coalition of scientists—drawn from the private and public sectors and academia—that can be mobilized for future pandemics. 

Military resources are created to stand ready for potential crises, noted Gil. Why isn’t a similar investment being made in science and technology?

“Today, we are very dependent on the [government] leadership of the moment for the ability to form these coalitions,” Gil said from IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “I would love for us to be a bit more structured, so ahead of time we know the rules of the game, of how we would work with each other.”

A cybersecurity “arms race” is growing around the evolution of AI, said Gil. Another global competition is developing in quantum computing, which he described as a race the U.S. can’t afford to lose.

He raised the example of an AI machine, developed last year by IBM, that was able to engage in a structured debate with a human opponent: It listened to the person’s opening argument and instantly generated its own four-minute rebuttal. 

Greater advances are on the way, he said. The rapid evolution of AI and quantum computing may lead to the creation of more efficient fertilizers, batteries made of sustainable materials, and new molecular compounds that could help combat future pandemics. 

Building systems that restore public trust in science and the scientific method will be crucial to the development of AI, according to Gil. An example of how to build these efforts can be drawn from Northeastern’s commitment to “networks for lifelong learning and discoveries that make people more agile, adaptable, and creative,” he said.

Luzzi brought up a new program, offered by Northeastern’s Roux Institute, in which researchers with a PhD will be offered a two-year mentoring and educational program in AI and machine learning. Gil said this kind of interdisciplinary program is reflective of a larger trend in science.

“I encourage students to take advantage” of such programs, Gil added. “It is something that will serve you well, no matter your career path.”

Aoun noted that Gil, a native of Spain, was an immigrant to the U.S., as were many of the Northeastern professors who raised questions and exchanged information with him during the event.

“What makes our American system so strong is the fact that this is the only open system I know of in the world that welcomes everybody,” Aoun said. “I am hoping this will remain, that no limitations will be put on the fact that [the U.S.] is still a magnet for talent from all over the world.”

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