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February 28, 2019

Pierre Baldi’s Transformative AI Leadership

At the end of January, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science Pierre Baldi was recognized for his significant contributions to artificial intelligence (AI). He made the list of innovative and entrepreneurial AI leaders compiled by Deep Knowledge Analytics in its report, “Top 100 AI Leaders in Drug Discovery and Advanced Healthcare.” It is no surprise to see Baldi on the list, given his application of AI to detect everything from cardiovascular disease and spinal metastasis to colorectal cancers and glioma in the brain. His research collaborations are helping medical professionals greatly improve diagnostic techniques and advance healthcare.

Yet Baldi’s leadership in AI extends far beyond the realm of healthcare. He helped create an AI Institute through the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) in December 2018, and he is now working to secure funding by turning the institute into an organized research unit (ORU) with faculty support from each of the UCI schools. “Because AI is so pervasive and touches virtually every area of science and technology, crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries, it is sensible to create a campuswide institute dedicated to the study of all aspects of AI,” explains Baldi. His proposal has been finalized and is now making its way through the necessary administrative channels before being submitted to the UCI Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

The proposal comes on the heels of an executive order focused on “Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence.” According to President Donald Trump, who issued the order on Feb. 11, “continued American leadership in Artificial Intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States.” The U.S. is looking for ways to pull ahead of China in the race to fully realize AI’s potential.

“Given the strategic importance of AI, the adversarial component of the U.S.-China relationship, and the significant investments China is making in AI, “ says Baldi, “it is natural for U.S. leaders to be concerned about the U.S. falling behind China in AI.”

Although the executive order doesn’t explicitly offer new funding, it does calls for “federal investment in AI research and development.” According to Baldi, this investment is crucial. “To further develop AI requires additional funding for AI research and education,” he says, explaining that funding often comes from government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). “Increasing the NSF budget is one of the key components to further developing AI,” he notes. “In addition, by its very nature, AI creates new ethical, legal, workforce and societal problems that will require a lot of thinking and debating, and some level of regulation and new legislation.”

Baldi has stressed the need to address these emerging problems in his proposal for recognizing the AI Institute as an ORU, admitting that we’re still in the very early stages of AI development. “A simple analogy would be to say that AI is to general intelligence today as the Wright brothers were to aviation in the early 1900s,” says Baldi. “We know how to build systems that can fly only over very short distances.”

He hopes to leverage faculty expertise in AI and machine learning, ensuring UCI takes a strong leadership role in helping AI take further flight. “It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the universities that will play a leading role in the 21st century, training the next generation of AI investigators, will be those that invest broadly in AI now.”

In fact, Baldi is already finding ways to better train next-generation AI researchers. The School of ICS recently accepted his proposal to create a course for both undergraduate and graduate students, “Artificial Intelligence Frontiers: Technical, Ethical, and Societal,” which will complement the more technical AI courses currently offered. This course is just one small part of Baldi’s plans for UCI in terms AI research and education developments.

— Shani Murray