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University at Albany to Make AI 'Part of Everything We Do'

The university's new vice president for research and economic development sees artificial intelligence as foundational to many fields and wants it to be incorporated into both research and basic studies.

University at Albany.jpg
University at Albany
(TNS) — In the not-to-distant future, artificial intelligence, or AI, is likely to be ubiquitous in almost every device and system we use in both our professional and everyday lives.

And Thenkurussi "Kesh" Kesavadas wants to make sure that the University at Albany — and the Capital Region — take full advantage of all the opportunities and technological advances that are coming with the widespread use of AI in society — a tech revolution that is taking place whether we are ready or not.

Kesavadas is the new vice president for research and economic development for UAlbany, taking over for James Dias, who retired late last year as the longest-serving research director ever at UAlbany, having started in 2009.

Kesavadas has impressive credentials and beat out "an impressive array of candidates from across the country" to win the job, according to UAlbany president Havidán Rodríguez.

Before he accepted the job at UAlbany, Kesavadas was the founding director of the Health Care Engineering Systems Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The center was started in 2014 as part of the university's engineering school. It develops simulation training systems for medical students and professionals and medical robots used in surgery. It also runs a health care analytics program that brings together medical researchers with engineers, AI experts and data scientists.

And it has the highest amount of endowed funding of any research center in the University of Illinois system.

"I am very confident that Dr. Kesavadas will provide the strategic vision and leadership necessary to successfully grow the university's research enterprise and economic development capacity in the years to come," Rodríguez said in a letter to the university community when Kesavadas was hired back in November. Kesavadas started Jan. 24.

And Kesavadas, who as director of research holds one of the most important jobs at the university, is not wasting any time making his mark on the university.

He has a bold vision for UAlbany and its use of AI technology in both research and basic studies starting with students in their first year at the school, regardless of their major.

Kesavadas says the AI revolution has already started, and those who embrace the technology will succeed — and those who ignore its power will fall behind.

"It's going to be part of everything we do, if not already everything we already do," Kesavadas, who goes by Kesh, told the Times Union in an interview. "We already deal with AI without realizing that we do."

AI is really about the intersection of big data, advanced software and ultra-fast computing.

That includes things like robotic surgery, which has been in use for decades, allowing surgeons to complete precision procedures they wouldn't otherwise be able to do by hand.

Companies like General Electric Co. have already developed "digital twins" of power plants they build that can be used to predict when parts and systems will break down and need to be replaced.

And electric utilities are using AI to help them predict how severe weather will impact where outages will likely happen on their electrical grids, a process that used to be largely done with guesswork and luck.

UAlbany's climate and weather prediction centers are already working with IBM, a leader in AI and data analytics, to help companies predict how weather and climate changes are impacting transportation, renewable energy systems, and water, which is rising across the globe due to climate change.

"The use of AI and machine learning for weather prediction and forecasting is rapidly evolving," said Chris Thorncroft, who heads UAlbany's Atmospheric Sciences Research Center and Center of Excellence in Weather & Climate Analytics.

With AI being such an important part of the future economy, Kesavadas says its even more important that students at UAlbany be prepared for that future that will require a workforce skilled in using AI, from engineers to English teachers.

"There's not enough graduates (able to use AI)," Kesavadas said. "There's not enough being done by universities. My vision is to change that in the Capital Region."

What's needed is access to supercomputing power in order to crunch the amount of data needed for software and machines to think like humans. UAlbany is totally behind that effort.

The program is envisioned as New York's Next Generation AI Supercomputer Cluster for Education and Research. UAlbany has already pitched the idea to state officials and says it will take $200 million in private and public funding, some of it from the state.

The effort will include wrapping AI instruction into all majors, what UAlbany called its "AI+X" program, and a workforce development program called Albany AI Academy.

And UAlbany's AI initiative has plenty of local support to build this educational and research program of the future. That's includes Albany Nanotech, which is home to IBM's AI center, as well as Renssealer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, which hosts one of IBM's supercomputers at the Rensselaer Technology Park in North Greenbush.

And of course there is the state's public health lab, the Wadsworth Center, which is located in Albany as well.

Even scientists at Albany Nanotech could benefit from UAlbany's new AI program, which would obviously have a large presence at UAlbany's new College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. That would only be enhanced with the move of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering from SUNY Polytechnic Institute back into UAlbany, where it originated, a plan supported by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

AI, Kesavadas said, can even make better, faster and more intuitive computer chips, which is the constant goal of companies like IBM and Applied Materials that are tenants at Albany Nanotech.

"What AI can do is, you can create more efficient chips," Kesavadas said. "You can also build systems that continuously learn from themselves."

©2022 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.