Bringing the power of computing to arts and humanities

Programming computers to think and respond like human beings, only faster, is already changing industries and touching people’s lives — from smartphones that answer our questions to software that helps doctors detect tumors.

But can it push the boundaries of knowledge in nontechnical fields such as music, history, languages and political science?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) thinks so.

The university has unveiled plans to open a $1 billion College of Computing in 2019, with the aim of incorporating artificial intelligence into every academic discipline.

Stephen Schwarzman (Courtesy of Blackstone)
Stephen Schwarzman (Courtesy of Blackstone)

MIT has already quietly raised two-thirds of the money, including a $350 million gift from Stephen Schwarzman, chairman and chief executive of the Blackstone Group investment firm. It plans to hire 50 new faculty members.

The new college will bring the power of computing and AI to all five of MIT’s existing schools, ensuring that MIT students become adept not only in their own fields but also in computing, says MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, and a timely one. MIT points to modern computational methods involving large sets of data that have led to “exciting new work” in political science, economics, linguistics, anthropology and urban studies — as well as science and engineering.

Seeking solutions for global problems

Students will also explore the ethical and philosophical implications of artificial intelligence — a critical aspect of managing the rapid growth of new technologies. “As computing reshapes our world, MIT intends to help make sure it does so for the good of all,” Reif said.

That’s important to Schwarzman. “We face fundamental questions about how to ensure that technological advancements benefit all, especially those most vulnerable to the radical changes AI will inevitably bring to the workforce,” he said.

Other top U.S. universities are also working on artificial intelligence-related projects to help people worldwide:

  • At Carnegie Mellon University, a computational biology professor is part of an international research team seeking to translate genetic findings into new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Stanford University has joined National Taiwan University in pursuing research on the application of AI to biotechnology and medicine.
  • Cornell University has partnered with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to establish the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, where scholars can collaborate on new technologies that address social and economic needs.

By stressing technological innovation, interdisciplinary prowess and a strong focus on ethics, Reif said, MIT’s new college will graduate leaders who can offer the world “not only technical wizardry but also human wisdom — the cultural, ethical and historical consciousness to use technology for the common good.”

Although best known for the sciences and engineering, MIT also offers a full complement of the liberal arts to undergraduates, who can even major in music and theater arts.

MIT’s new college will occupy its own building by 2022 and will be housed elsewhere on campus until then.