University of Texas will offer a massively online master’s degree in AI
The University of Texas at Austin, one of the nation’s leading computer science schools, said Thursday it is launching a large-scale, low-cost online Master of Science degree program in artificial intelligence.
The new program, the first of its kind among elite computing schools, could help rapidly 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 on new technology powered by artificial intelligence that can generate human-like art and texts. And while some of the technology industry’s biggest companies are laying off workers after years of rapid growth, hiring in AI is expected to remain strong.
University officials said they plan to train thousands of graduate students in in-demand skills such as machine learning for tuition of about $10,000 starting in the spring of 2024. School officials said the cost was intended to make AI education more affordable. In contrast, Johns Hopkins University offers an online MS degree in artificial intelligence for over $45,000.
“AI is now becoming an essential tool in areas outside the purview of a handful of tech companies,” said Adam Clivens, a computer science professor at Texas. Noting that there is high demand for AI experts in industries such as biotechnology and finance, Professor Clivens said the new online degree is “something working professionals can participate in to learn their companies’ expertise without leaving their jobs.”
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Funding to develop the new master’s program came in part from the National Science Foundation. In 2020, the foundation awarded a $20 million grant over five years to the University of Texas to establish an AI Institute in Machine Learning. This is an area in which computer algorithms learn to make predictions by analyzing large data sets – such as predicting which drug formulations might best be used to treat new viruses.
University officials said tenure-track faculty in related fields such as computer science and computer engineering, will teach online master’s courses through recorded video lectures along with some interactive sessions. Faculty members involved in an interdisciplinary research program at the university called Good Systems, which aims to develop AI tools whose potential societal benefits outweigh their disadvantages, will also participate.
The online master’s program will include advanced courses in areas such as machine learning; AI Applications in Health; and natural language processing, which helps voice assistants like Siri and Alexa understand human speech. Each course will also include formal ethics training to give students a framework for understanding the social impacts of AI systems.
“In each class, instructors will ask students to consider the potential advantages and potential disadvantages of the technologies they are learning about,” said Peter Stone, professor of computer science at Texas. “People developing next-generation technologies, as well as users, need to have a realistic view of AI’s strengths and limitations”
Those creative and critical skills may be in increasingly high demand. Tech companies are scrambling to develop advanced chatbots and other AI tools that can generate images and text in response to tiny prompts – even as some researchers warn that these novel systems The rush to deploy can create risks, such as political manipulation.
The Texas program was partly inspired by the Georgia Institute of Technology, which in 2014 became the first leading computer science school in that region to launch large-scale, low-cost online master’s degrees. Thousands of students have graduated from the program.
In 2019, the University of Texas at Austin launched its massively online master’s degree program in computer science, followed by a similar online master’s program in data science in 2021. Together, the programs have an enrollment of approximately 2,800 students.
Don Fussell, chair of the computer science department, said 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. He said students will not need a bachelor’s degree in computer science to be accepted into the online program, but they will need a specialization 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 event may already have a ready-made audience: tens of thousands of unemployed tech workers who specialize in artificial intelligence.
“If these layoffs continue, I think we’re going to see a shift to AI among a lot of people from general computer science and technology backgrounds,” Professor Fussell said. “The way the field is growing.”