A Half Century of AI

AI generated image of graduate walking thorugh circuts.

Western New Yorkers have always been innovators, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters during a recent address. So when it came time to choose a home for the state’s new $400-million artificial intelligence consortium, Empire AI, the University at Buffalo was a natural fit.

How UB Shaped Tech’s Next Frontier

Computer scientists and mathematicians at UB have been working in the field since the late 1970s, before “artificial intelligence” even entered the vernacular. Now, Hochul says, UB will anchor a statewide alliance of universities, colleges and private foundations, all working together to make New York “the home of the technology of the future.”

“We want to make sure that New York state is the capital of AI development,” Hochul said. “I’m proud to announce that the home will be right here at [UB].”

Following the governor’s announcement, UB President Satish K. Tripathi noted the consortium “will spur game-changing research, attract significant federal funding and expand 21st century business and industry, cultivating sustained economic prosperity in Buffalo, Western New York and across the state.”

In many ways, Empire AI is just the latest acknowledgement of UB’s long-standing leadership in artificial intelligence, a field poised to disrupt virtually every industry and many aspects of daily life.

Longstanding leadership

Venu Govindaraju, PhD ’92, MS ’88, vice president for research and economic development, said more than 200 UB faculty engage in AI research, spanning computer science, mathematics, education, the humanities and more.

“At UB, we’ve created a robust research environment that’s enabling AI scholars to push the boundaries of innovation in cybersecurity, drug discovery and medicine, education, environmental science and other fields,” he says.

The high degree of interdisciplinary collaboration among UB researchers makes the university unique among the country’s other AI research centers, said Rohini Srihari, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering who has worked on AI-related projects for more than 30 years. UB is also distinguished by its emphasis on AI “for the social good,” she says.

Broadly speaking, AI describes a set of technologies that allow computer systems to perform human cognitive tasks, such as translating languages, diagnosing diseases or learning to drive.

Leading UB in AI for the Social Good

Venu Govindaraju.

Venu Govindaraju, an internationally known authority in AI, is credited with major conceptual and practical advances, six books, six patents and close to 500 refereed publications.

He established UB’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science, and the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education, and is founding director of the Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors.

His pivotal work in handwriting recognition paved the way for continued ingenuity. Govindaraju has secured more than $95 million in sponsored funding from industry and federal and state agencies.

An educator for more than 20 years, Govindaraju has graduated 44 doctoral students and 17 master’s students as their primary thesis adviser. He also received the Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring Award from UB in 2016, and in May he received the UB President’s Medal in recognition of extraordinary service to the university.

Improving lives for the better

Sargur "Hari" Srihari sitting in front of a computer.

The late Sargur “Hari” Srihari, a pioneer in pattern recognition, joined UB’s faculty in 1978.

“A lot of the early AI technology went into things like Amazon’s recommendation system or Facebook’s News Feed, to help people buy more products or read more… news,” Srihari says. “But my goal, and the goal of many of my colleagues at UB, is to figure out how we can actually leverage this technology to improve people’s lives for the better.”

Though you might not realize it, UB’s AI technology already touches your daily life. In the 1980s and ’90s, computer scientists Hari Srihari (Rohini Srihari’s late husband) and Govindaraju developed new techniques for enabling computers to read human handwriting, which the U.S. Postal Service later adopted for sorting mail.

That early research by Hari Srihari and his colleagues also expanded into computational forensics, where UB researchers developed cutting-edge automated systems that analyzed handwriting samples, fingerprints and shoe prints for use in criminal investigations. A second offshoot of the work applied similar computational techniques to homeland security and intelligence applications. 

Collaboration Across Disciplines

Today’s AI systems, while capable of vastly more nuanced and sophisticated data interpretation, still rely on the same principles: They first identify patterns in massive data sets, and then process new information, solve problems or generate original content according to what they learn.

UB faculty and students are now turning those techniques to even larger social challenges, from teacher shortages to climate change to drug development. Rohini Srihari’s current work, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), aims to turn AI chatbots to “useful purposes,” such as helping people with mental health issues or persuading social media users not to spread misinformation. That research has put her in regular contact with colleagues who study psychology, communicative disorders and the social sciences, among other disciplines.

In recent years, UB has also established targeted research hubs, like the Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science, or IAD, and the Center for Information Integrity (CII).

Since 2021, IAD has convened educators, researchers and students from across the university to tackle problems in robotics, the health sciences, social sciences and computational modeling. Meanwhile, CII, founded one year later, draws on experts from fields including computer science, library science, law and literature to address the spread of misleading information—often by AI actors. 

The center recently held a public event at the Buffalo Museum of Science, where faculty from UB’s mathematics, architecture and comparative literature programs discussed bias in AI algorithms.

“That just gives you a sense of how many people we have involved,” says David Castillo, the center’s co-director and a professor of Romance languages and literatures. “We are trying to tackle these problems from many different perspectives here.”

Panelists on stage.

A panel discussion was held on the topic of "Harnessing AI for Public Good" in September 2023. The panel included UB Professors David Costillo, X. Christina Wang, Ciprian "Chip" Ionita and Ifeoma Nwogu. Venu Govindaraju served as moderator.

Future Impact

By leveraging the resources and expertise of multiple public and private institutions, including schools from both the SUNY and CUNY systems, Empire AI is expected to accelerate research, development and investment statewide in Western New York, and perhaps federally.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is advocating for Empire AI to play a leading role in a new National AI Research Resource pilot program that launched in January. The federal program will share resources among government-funded entities to collaborate on AI innovation and policy, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said when he visited UB with Schumer in April.

“Traditionally, colleges and universities are at the epicenter of life-changing research and ideas,” Govindaraju said. “UB is pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence and data science in fields that are critical to the state and nation’s future.”   

A Timeline of AI Innovation at UB

Story by Caitlin Dewey      

Published May 15, 2024