University of Texas will offer large-scale online master’s degree in AI

The University of Texas at Austin, one of the nation’s leading computer science schools, said Thursday that it was starting a large-scale, low-cost online master of science degree program in artificial intelligence.

The first of its kind among elite computing schools, the new program could help swiftly expand the AI workforce in the United States as tech giants such as Microsoft rush to invest billions in the field.

The university announced the initiative amid a clamor over new technology powered by AI that can generate humanlike art and texts. And although some of the technology industry’s biggest companies are laying off workers after years of rapid growth, hiring in AI is expected to stay strong.

University officials said they planned to train thousands of graduate students in sought-after skills such as machine learning, for a tuition of about $10,000, starting in spring 2024. School officials said the cost was intended to make AI education more affordable. By contrast, Johns Hopkins University offers an online MS degree in artificial intelligence for more than $45,000.

“AI is now becoming an essential tool in fields way outside the scope of a handful of tech companies,” said Adam Klivans, a computer science professor at Texas and the director of the online AI master’s program. Noting that AI experts are in high demand in industries such as biotechnology and finance, Klivans said the new online degree was “something working professionals can participate in to learn the expertise their companies need without leaving their jobs.”

The funding to develop the 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 establish an AI institute in machine learning. That is a field in which computer algorithms learn to make predictions by analyzing large data sets — such as predicting which drug formulations could be best used to treat new viruses.

University officials said tenure-track faculty in computer science and related fields, such as computer engineering, would teach the online master’s courses via recorded video lectures, along with some interactive sessions. Faculty members involved in an interdisciplinary research program at the university called Good Systems, which is aimed at developing AI tools whose potential societal benefits outweigh their harms, will also participate.

The online master’s program will include advanced courses in fields such as machine learning; AI applications in health; and natural language processing, which helps voice assistants such as 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 students to reflect on the possible benefits and possible harms of the technologies they are learning about,” said Peter Stone, a computer science professor at Texas who teaches a course in ethical robotics. “People developing the next generation of technologies, as well as users, need to have a realistic view of what are the strengths and limitations of AI.”

Those creative and critical skills could be in increasingly high demand. Tech companies are scrambling to develop advanced chatbots and other AI tools that can generate images and texts in response to short prompts — even as some researchers warn that the rush to deploy these novel systems could pose risks, such as political manipulation.

The Texas program was inspired in part by the Georgia Institute of Technology, which in 2014 became the first leading computer science school to start a large-scale, low-cost online master’s degree in that field. Thousands of students have graduated from the program.

In 2019, the University of Texas at Austin started its own large-scale online master’s degree program in computer science, followed by a similar online master’s in data science in 2021. Together, the programs have an enrollment of about 2,800 students.

The university plans to open applications for the new AI master’s program this June with the aim of enrolling more than 2,000 students per year, 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 they will need to have expertise in a technical field such as engineering or computing. The AI 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-made audience: tens of thousands of unemployed tech workers looking to specialize in AI.

“If these layoffs continue, I think we are going to see a shift among a lot of people from general computer science and tech backgrounds to AI,” Fussell said. “That’s the way the field is moving.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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