URI to open artificial intelligence lab

KINGSTON — An artificial intelligence laboratory is coming to the University of Rhode Island’s Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons, URI announced Thursday.

The lab — slated to open next fall — will allow students to explore robotics, wearable technology, smart cities and public policy. The new lab’s library location is strategic, university officials said, designed to attract students from different majors and fields to brainstorm ideas and create innovative products with these tools and resources.

Cheryl Foster, a URI philosophy professor and a founding member of the lab, said the kinds of solutions AI can offer the world — everything from smart homes, natural-language processing and big data — are the future. But themes around AI can be controversial, she pointed out, which also needs to be explored.

“The acceleration of artificial intelligence … presents humanity with one of its most fascinating social challenges,” she said. “Prominent scientists, entrepreneurs and philosophers from around the world are engaged in vigorous disagreements about the risks and benefits of these tools, as well as how we should regulate them. The AI Lab will serve as a place for the URI community to explore these issues alongside those related to the nuts and bolts of programming.”

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Kunal Mankodiya, assistant professor in URI’s electrical, computer and biomedical engineering department, is a lead on the initiative. He calls the AI lab a direct result of student interest.

“Last spring, the vice provost for enrollment management ran a contest for admitted students to write about the issues they wanted to study in college. Artificial intelligence was at the top of the list, and our team came together to create a space for that,” he said.

In addition to Mankodiya and Foster, other founding members are Joan Peckham, professor of computer science and coordinator of the Statistics/Big Data Initiative and Data Science programs; and Karim Boughida, Harrison Dekker and Angelica Ferria of University Libraries.

Students across the URI campus can learn to design “smart” projects. After the lab opens, organizers will host workshops and hack-a-thons to welcome students to the space, a 600-square-foot room on the library’s first floor.

“We wanted to demystify AI for our students and community,” says Boughida. “The lab is soon to be pervasive, and the library is the perfect inter-disciplinary space.”

The lab will include workstations based on a supercomputer; space for more hands-on experience for students to develop lab projects on deep-learning robots, the Internet of Things, smart cities and big-data analytics; and a collaboration zone, where students can discuss ethical issues with experts.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributor.