University of Texas to offer large-scale online master’s degree in AI
The University of Texas at Austin, one of the nation’s top computer science schools, said Thursday it is launching a large-scale, low-cost online master’s degree program in artificial intelligence.
A first of its kind among elite computer schools, the new program could help rapidly expand the AI workforce in the United States as tech giants like Microsoft rush to invested billions in the area.
The university announced the initiative amid buzz surrounding new AI-powered technology that can generate human-like art and text. And while some of the tech industry’s biggest companies are laying off workers after years of rapid growth, AI hiring is expected to remain strong.
University leaders have said they plan to train thousands of graduate students in in-demand skills such as machine learning, for a tuition of about $10,000, starting in the spring of 2024. School officials said the cost is intended to make AI education more affordable. In contrast, Johns Hopkins University offers an online master’s degree in artificial intelligence for more than $45,000.
“AI is now becoming a major tool in areas that are beyond the reach of a handful of technology companies,” said Adam Clevans, a professor of computer science at Texas State who is director of the online master’s program in AI. Noting that AI experts are in high demand in industries such as biotech and finance, Professor Clevans said the new online degree was “something that working professionals can participate in to learn the expertise their companies need without to quit their jobs’.
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Funding for the development of the new master’s program came in part from the National Science Foundation. In 2020, the foundation awarded the University of Texas a five-year, $20 million grant to create an AI institute in machine learning. It’s an area where computer algorithms learn to make predictions by analyzing large sets of data — such as predicting which drug formulas can best be used to treat new viruses.
University officials said faculties of computer science and related fields, such as computer engineering, will teach online master’s courses through recorded video lectures, along with some interactive sessions. Faculty members involved in an interdisciplinary research program at the university called Good systemswhich aims to develop AI tools whose potential benefits to society outweigh their harms will also participate.
The online master’s program will include advanced courses in areas such as machine learning; AI applications in healthcare; and natural language processing, which helps voice assistants like Siri and Alexa understand human speech. Each course will also include formal ethics training to give students a framework for understanding the societal implications of AI systems.
“In each of the classes, the instructor will ask the students to consider the possible benefits and possible harms of the technology they’re learning about,” said Peter Stone, a professor of computer science at Texas Tech who teaches course in ethical robotics. “People developing the next generation of technology, as well as users, need to have a realistic view of what the strengths and limitations of AI are”
These creative and critical skills may be in increasing demand. Tech companies are scrambling to develop advanced chatbots and other AI tools that can generate images and text in response to brief prompts — though some researchers warn that the rush to deploy these new systems could create risks, such as political manipulation.
The Texas program was inspired in part by the Georgia Institute of Technology, which in 2014 became the first top computer science school to launch large-scale, low-cost online master’s degree in this field. Thousands of students have completed the program.
In 2019, the University of Texas at Austin launched its own large-scale online master’s degree in computer science, followed by a similar online master’s degree in data science in 2021. Together, the programs enroll about 2,800 students.
The university plans to open applications for the new artificial intelligence master’s program this June with the goal of enrolling more than 2,000 students annually, said Don Fussell, chair of the computer science department. To be accepted into the online program, he said, students will not be required to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but will need to have experience in a technical field such as engineering or computer science. The artificial intelligence courses will be offered through edX, a popular learning platform that also hosts the university’s online master’s courses in computer and data science.
With widespread layoffs at Amazon, Google and other tech firms, the online program may already have a ready audience: tens of thousands of unemployed tech workers who want to major in artificial intelligence.
“If these cuts continue, I think we will see a shift among many people from general computer science and technology backgrounds to AI,” Professor Fussell said. “That’s the way the field moves.”
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