Leading AI Toward Good

Whether artificial intelligence will change the world is no longer a question. Now, it’s just a matter of how.

digital illustration of brain and computer chip.

In the 1990s, a team of computer scientists at the University at Buffalo delivered one of the first practical success stories of artificial intelligence: development of a handwriting recognition system for the U.S. Postal Service. The technology, at the time cutting-edge, has saved the agency billions of dollars in operational costs.

Now, decades later, with a slate of top talent and substantial public and private investment, UB research continues to push both the capabilities and the applications of AI on a number of fronts, all with a singular aim of solving societal challenges both large and small.

From pioneer to powerhouse

The researchers responsible for the mail sorting breakthrough were part of a small but determined UB lab known as the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition, or CEDAR, which started in the 1970s in the infancy of the field.

The work paved the way for today’s advanced technologies in image and voice recognition. It also established UB as a groundbreaker in artificial intelligence research.

The university now has more than 200 faculty at work on a wide array of foundational and use-inspired AI projects. Their aims encompass not only advances in computational research and modeling but also major improvements in health sciences, education, information integrity, social justice, sustainability, ethics and more. Research projects currently underway involve tapping the power of AI to treat brain aneurysms; spot Type 2 diabetes trends; detect deepfakes with accuracy; improve indoor greenhouse plant production; help first responders during natural disasters; modernize manufacturing systems; predict disease progression during aging; map glacial ice in the Arctic; develop new materials for space applications; and more.

The breadth of work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Recently, New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that UB will serve as the home base of a statewide consortium called Empire AI. The consortium will create a tech hub where public and private research institutions across the state can together leverage the vast possibilities of artificial intelligence to solve a spectrum of societal problems. Empire AI will not only accelerate critical research and innovation, but also serve as a reliable, trustworthy source of information as AI technologies advance.

The $400 million initiative, which aims to put New York at the forefront of the AI revolution, includes the construction of a new state-of-the-art computing center on UB’s campus. Selecting UB for this leadership role underscores the university’s longstanding national and international reputation in AI and data science, which only continues to build, according to UB President Satish K. Tripathi.

“UB has been leveraging AI for the public good for decades—and, in the process, gaining renown as a pioneer of machine learning,” said Tripathi. “Today, UB stands at the center of AI research and responsible application.”

Joining forces for greater impact

Focused collaborations—not just with external partners, but within the university’s own schools and faculty—are key to UB’s notable growth in the domain.

In 2021, UB established the Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science (IAD) by merging two existing engines of research—the AI Institute and the Institute for Computational and Data Science—to leverage the educational and research potential of each, and create even greater opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration and innovation.

The IAD now engages educators, researchers, students and external partners from across the university and beyond to continue advancing the promise of true machine intelligence and human-machine partnerships, and to be an international leader in creating, curating and disseminating data and computing-related knowledge and skills.

Last year, UB was awarded a highly competitive $20 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to establish the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education, which is developing artificial intelligence systems to diagnose and treat young children with speech and language processing challenges. The institute’s research team comprises dozens of investigators from nine universities that specialize in artificial intelligence, natural language processing, social robotics, communications, diversity and inclusivity, and other fields.

Branching out to real-world applications

UB’s AI research also drives collaboration with the business sector. UB technologies are behind the development and commercialization of a low-cost, blood diagnostic to detect unruptured brain aneurysms; software utilizing computer vision and machine learning to make real-time predictions of the outcomes of treatment for stroke; and a therapeutic discovery platform, which leverages multiscale data to rapidly generate safe and effective new drugs.

Spinoffs and partnerships include one company that builds software for care organizations utilizing a proprietary algorithm to identify and help manage risk in complex patient populations, and another that develops tools for tissue labs that use automation to improve turnaround time, quality and consistency.

All in on AI for good

Academia is absolutely the right place for these pursuits, according to Venu Govindaraju, UB vice president for research and economic development, who also co-chairs the SUNY AI Task Force, charged with developing a five-year strategy for harnessing AI in education.

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

Fulfilling this charge takes infrastructure and expertise. UB is top among all New York universities and colleges in receiving support from the NSF’s Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure, the federal government’s primary vehicle for establishing state-of-the-art computing infrastructure at U.S. colleges and universities. The university also draws top talent, having kicked off a two-year hiring initiative that is substantially growing tenured and tenure-track faculty in specific areas of societal importance and university strength—including AI.

It also requires a commitment to building relationships, facilitating the creative interaction and supporting the vision needed to address today’s—and tomorrow’s—most pressing issues.

One notable instance is the work of UB’s Center for Information Integrity, where leadership is balanced across both STEM and non-STEM fields to ensure a cross-disciplinary approach to protecting the information ecosystem in the age of AI. The center recently was awarded a $5.75 million grant from the NSF to help older adults spot online scams and disinformation.

“On one hand, artificial intelligence, in the wrong hands, gives rise to manipulation, deception and worse,” said Tripathi. “In equal measure, this rapidly evolving technology can engender tremendous good.”

Tech giants and other private ventures are able to invest massive resources to make advances toward their own ends. But there is a need, and a benefit, in having UB—a leading public research university and the flagship of its state system—forge ahead with its own contributions. It’s the best way to ensure that as new technologies transform the world, they do so for the better.