This college opened a one-of-a-kind AI lab


An innovative approach to artificial intelligence at the University of Rhode Island is open to the public

What if a special lab at the University of Rhode Island (URI) could educate the community on the ethical, technological, and social consequences of artificial intelligence (AI)?

That’s what Karim Boughida, dean of the URI Libraries, is counting on with a unique AI lab in the Robert L. Carothers Library at URI.

Students, faculty members, state officials, business people, and community members can all use the lab for answers. And although AI labs have been around for decades, this is the first-of-its-kind in a common area, open to the public.

The lab’s goals are two-fold:

  1. Students can use it to create cutting-edge projects, such as robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) for smart cities to help with traffic flow, for example. It can also teach about AI’s impact in politics. For example, students can learn how to create a fake news algorithm on social media—like when a hacker creates a virus—and influence an election, or how to create an algorithm to counter fake news to stop it from spreading on social media.
  2. Faculty, businesses, and the community can use it to explore ethical, economic, and even artistic implications of emerging technologies. “We want to emphasize the role of ethics in terms of understanding and how we implement decision-making in the future,” says Boughida. For example, truck drivers may be out of a job in 20 years or so, due to self-driving vehicles.

How the lab operates
Funded by a $143,065 grant from the Champlin Foundation, the lab has a Nvidia supercomputer as its centerpiece. It includes software-focused makerspaces and design-thinking labs, creating a multidisciplinary environment that’s rare in academic buildings, Boughida says.

Dr. Kunal Mankodiya, assistant professor of URI’s department of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering, established a founding team of the AI lab, involving the URI College of Arts and Sciences and URI Libraries. He says the lab will enable students to do programming as well as make things that can think.

Two years ago, Dr. Mankodiya, also director of URI’s Wearable Biosensing Laboratory, started a smart textiles project, which involves transforming gloves and other clothing into high-tech items that could work in telemedicine. His latest project, a smart glove, has sensors that can “read” certain body functions and has been tested on patients with Parkinson’s disease. Patients would wear the glove and, within minutes, their doctors could review their data, including symptoms, and devise a treatment plan or ensure medications are working.

In the AI lab, students can help design AI algorithms that could predict the progression of disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, or could help personalize medicine. Patients who are rehabilitating at home might be doing their exercises wrong. One way a doctor could know that is via a smart wearable algorithm that could sense the patients’ heart rate and oxygen levels, for example. In turn, their doctors could revise the rehabilitation plan to strengthen it or weaken it, depending on that data.

Zones for learning
The AI Lab has three zones that will open in the spring 2019 semester: individualized learning, hands-on projects, and collaborative thinking. After students learn the basics of AI and programming language via a guided tutorial, they can move on to intermediate and advanced levels where they can start to use robots and IoT kits, devising innovative projects that haven’t even been thought of yet.

Boughida says that the lab is aligned with Rhode Island priorities—to encourage students to stay in the state after college and work as data scientists, AI engineers, ethics/philosophy instructors, user experience designers, AI strategy consultants, and robot managers.

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