A new artificial intelligence graduate degree program at Iowa State University will be the first of its kind in the state.
The Iowa Board of Regents approved the two-year master’s of science degree program Thursday through consent agenda after being presented with the program Wednesday in committee. The graduate program is expected to begin this fall.
Hridesh Rajan, a professor and chairperson of ISU’s Department of Computer Science, said the new program seeks to produce graduates that can work on building and enhancing components of artificial intelligence — not only to be able to understand and make practical use of machine learning and big data, but also be able to communicate the capabilities and limitations of AI.
What is artificial intelligence, and what are the job prospects in the field?
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is the study of techniques that help incorporate intelligence into software, Rajan said.
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He said AI is already part of daily life in how social media feeds are organized, which city’s weather forecast is determined to be the one that matters and how a virtual assistant finds the nearest coffee shop when asked to.
“It would be an underestimation to say that AI is now part of our everyday life,” from the time we wake up until going to bed, Rajan said.
Rajan anticipates thousands of new jobs in AI in the next few years, and said the technology could be used to decrease error rates in diagnoses in health care, create vaccines faster and improve sustainable use of resources.
In vaccines, the chief scientific officer of Moderna — maker of one of the three COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. — has said the company uses AI and machine learning to try to predict viral mutations that could cause problems and then design vaccines to fight them.
More: Vaccines 2.0: Next-generation COVID-19 shots will be cheaper, easier to deliver and protect against more viruses, industry leaders say
All of those endeavors involve big data, and algorithms that can leverage the data. “Having the data itself is not the endgame. We need to be able to make the data work for us,” Rajan said.
That means there’s a need for people who can understand algorithms and how machines can use them to discover knowledge and make decisions based on it.
According to citations in documents submitted to the Regents, the job of AI specialist had the most growth between 2015 and 2020, with an average annual growth rate of 74%.
Rajan said it’s also the kind of work that major companies are doing in Iowa — not just somewhere far away such as Silicon Valley.
More details about ISU’s AI program
Rajan said it was the questions of prospective students and their parents that spurred the design of the new master’s in science AI degree program at ISU.
With the Regents’ approval and after marketing the program over the summer, the projected enrollment for the first year is five students, but that’s anticipated to grow to 15 in the second year, almost 40 in the fourth year and almost 70 students in the seventh year of the program.
Rajan said a master’s degree will allow for more in-depth experience and expertise than an undergraduate degree could offer, and a hands-on capstone project will serve graduates as a demonstration of their skills when applying for a job.
According to a news release from ISU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, core classes beyond AI and machine learning techniques will also include “knowledge representation and reasoning; search and planning; computer vision and perception; natural language processing and robotics.”
Beyond Iowa, he said Northwestern University has a master’s degree in AI, and a number of schools are also looking into their own programs.
Other Regents actions involving ISU academics
The Regents also Thursday approved a merger of ISU’s departments of Entomology and Plant Pathology and Microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, planned for September 2022, in the hopes of increasing undergraduate student enrollment.
The merged departments would have a single chairperson, and the addition of two tenure-track faculty lines has already been agreed to by the departments.
The Regents also approved new ISU bachelor’s or master’s degree programs in business administration, human resource management and education.
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at [email protected] He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.