College of Illinois and IBM Researching AI, Quantum Tech

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Grainger College of Engineering is partnering with tech giant IBM to bolster the college’s research and workforce development efforts in quantum information technology, artificial intelligence and environmental sustainability.

According to a news release from the university, the 10-year $200 million partnership will fund the future construction of a new Discovery Accelerator Institute, where university and IBM researchers will collaborate on solving global challenges with emerging technologies such as AI.

Areas of study will include AI’s potential to solve sustainable energy, new materials for CO2 capture and conversion, and cloud computing and security. Researchers will also explore ways to improve quantum information systems and quantum computing, which applies the rules of quantum mechanics to make computations much faster than most computers in use today.

Rashid Bashir, dean of the College of Engineering, said details on the new facility that will house the institute remained pending as of this week, but the partnership itself is projected to begin by fall 2021.

Bashir said the partnership will allow IBM and university researchers to work toward developing the “technology of tomorrow,” with sustainability in mind.

“We’re looking for a new way to really bridge that gap [between academia and the tech industry] in a much more intimate way and expand our collective research and educational impact,” he said. “In higher ed and industry, we need to come together to solve grand challenges to keep a sustainable planet, to provide high-quality jobs and develop a new economy.”

Jeff Welser, COO of IBM Research and vice president of exploratory science and university partnerships at IBM, said the new partnership builds upon the work of the IBM-Illinois Center for Cognitive Computing Systems Research (C3SR), launched in 2016 to advance research in artificial intelligence and cognitive computing.

“We had already been working with them in the AI space,” Welser said. “We realized we could take what we’re doing here with AI, expand it to do some of the work in the hybrid cloud space, and think about what we do with that by advancing these base technologies.

“It’s also using this as a test bed for what we call ‘discovery acceleration,’ which is using technologies to discover new materials and new science that can help with societal problems,” he continued. “In the case of this, we’re focusing on carbon capture, carbon accounting and climate change.”

As part of the initiative, Bashir said the company and faculty will team up to develop nondegree tech certification programs and professional development courses in IT-related fields. He said the goal will be to feed IT talent into the workforce, given the national shortage of tech professionals in artificial intelligence, data science and quantum computing.

“Working with IBM, they’re interested in hiring the workforce of tomorrow. Building that talent from early in the pipeline and diversifying the STEM talent pipeline is something we want to work on together,” he said, adding that the partnership also aims to diversify the IT talent pool by bringing students of color and women into emerging fields like quantum computing.

Welser said the Discovery Accelerator Institute will complement a related company initiative: the IBM Skills Academy, a training certification program that provides over 330 courses relating to artificial intelligence, cloud computing, blockchain, data science and quantum computing.

“We have courses that help train professors in specific areas of these skills, and they can use those materials in their coursework and create their own accredited courses,” he said. “We’ve realized there really is a need for having these kinds of courses that don’t necessarily go into a full university [degree] but could be more certifications for students – people who want to learn about an area and get a certain level of certification.”

In addition to research and course development efforts, Bashir noted that the institute will give students close access to one of the world’s largest tech employers.

“We believe we can work together to prepare more talent through our educational pipeline, which IBM can have firsthand access to,” he said. “If they are working together with us, then they get to know those students.”

The Illinois initiative comes two months after the tech company announced a partnership with Cleveland Clinic to study hybrid cloud, AI and quantum computing technologies to accelerate advancements in health care and life sciences. As part of that partnership, IBM plans to install its first private-sector, on-premises quantum computing system in the U.S.

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