Anant Madabhushi was ready for the next step in his career as a researcher and educator. He was already widely recognized as a pioneer in the emerging field of machine learning—specifically for medical imaging and computer-assisted diagnoses. He had authored more than 450 peer-reviewed publications and held over one hundred patents in AI, radiomics, computational pathology, and computer vision. He had even seen his name printed in major consumer publications such as Business Insider and Scientific American that spread the word about how algorithms he’s created have greatly improved the accuracy of diagnosing cancer.
But Madabhushi, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, wanted more. He wanted to break out of the lab and share his specialized knowledge of AI with doctors and clinicians who could put it to use in health care systems and hospitals. “I felt it was critical that I translate these algorithms into the medical ecosystem,” says Madabhushi. “It was time to move and deploy this technology into the clinical workflow.”
About the time Madabhushi was feeling this pull, he was contacted by Ravi Bellamkonda, a longtime friend and colleague who had recently been named provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Emory. Bellamkonda told Madabhushi about a new initiative he was launching, called AI.Humanity, that would transform Emory into a cross-disciplinary community that takes the study of AI out of the research setting and puts it front and center in the fields of health, social justice, philosophy, business, law, literature, the arts, and every other aspect of our lives that this technology touches—which is to say practically everything.
"I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about health disparities and addressing the issues of bias where we’ve discounted underrepresented and minority populations in the construction of these AI models.”
— Anant Madabhushi
Simply put, the goal is to position Emory as a thought leader in this increasingly omnipresent field and, as the name indicates, put the humanity in machine learning and AI. “Emory wants to work to understand and influence the interface between this explosion of data and data-driven decisions and how we think of ourselves as people, our society, our commerce, and our way of being,” says Bellamkonda. “Emory wants to make an investment and build that capacity.”
In practice, AI.Humanity is an investment in people—a hiring initiative that will add to Emory’s existing strengths by bringing in between sixty and seventy-five new faculty across multiple departments, embedding expertise in AI and machine learning throughout campus and creating a larger community for the sharing of ideas.
Madabhushi is one of the initiative’s first hires. In July, he will join the Emory School of Medicine, where he can leverage the university’s renowned resources in health sciences to employ his AI and bioengineering algorithms. At the same time, he will be able to tap the expertise of the Emory Center for Ethics, the School of Law, Goizueta Business School, the Department of Political Science, and other arts and sciences programs. Having access to both sides of campus will help him and other hires to address ethics, legality, commerce, social justice, and other issues that inevitably arise when this technology—trained on human data, employed by humans, and used on other humans—goes out into the world.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about health disparities and addressing the issues of bias where we’ve discounted underrepresented and minority populations in the construction of these AI models,” says Madabhushi. “Health care costs are out of control, and one reason is because we have a number of therapies that are really expensive—and a lot of them don’t work for all populations. Sixty percent of cancer patients are bankrupt. I’m coming at it from a technical standpoint. I’m excited to work with people who work on this from the financial, ethical, and legal perspectives.”
Ethics is going to be at the heart of this initiative centered on machine minds. The questions of “should we?” and “if so, how?” are inherent in any consideration of deploying AI and machine learning to human life. And Emory already has a globally recognized foothold in this arena through the Center for Ethics.
That ethics infrastructure will be augmented by the creation of the inaugural James W. Wagner Chair in Ethics, an endowed position named in honor of the former Emory president and with a special focus on artificial intelligence. An international search is already underway to find the right person to lead multidisciplinary reflections, conversations, and challenges involving AI as its uses expand across campus and throughout society. “We’re very excited about this initiative,” says Gari Clifford, chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics in Emory School of Medicine. “Ethics is at the core of what we do here. It’s critical that we instill ethics and health equity into both our applied models and our teaching pedagogy.”
Provost Bellamkonda has also convened a task force of faculty drawn from across the campus. This panel will not only identify promising candidates to fill these new cross-disciplinary positions, but it will also facilitate and build awareness and a community around this initiative through educational programming and seminars for faculty and students alike. “It’s a significant investment, but it’s just a seed of a broader initiative,” says Tim Holbrook, vice provost for faculty affairs and co-convener of the task force. “Hopefully, it becomes self-propagating, and we continue to grow and bring in top-notch faculty to a more formal structure.”
Fellow task force leader Lanny S. Liebeskind, vice provost for strategic research initiatives, says he thinks the initiative will do more than just take advantage of Emory’s current strengths in health sciences, ethics, business, law, and liberal arts—by bringing in so many experts in AI and machine learning, it could also burnish the university’s credentials in other areas of study.
“Historically, we’ve had great success in, but haven’t necessarily been recognized for, things computational and computer science related,” says Liebeskind, who is also Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Chemistry. “Most everyone who gets hired will have very strong computational and data science expertise. You’re shifting Emory’s overall strengths in interesting ways.”
But Provost Bellamkonda emphasizes that AI.Humanity is not about moving away from Emory’s tradition in the humanities, nor is the initiative, in his opinion, inconsistent with the university’s liberal arts mission. AI is already incorporated into most facets of everyday life, and it is becoming a foundational area of study for higher education.
Bringing together the full intellectual power of Emory University to shape the AI revolution to better human health, generate economic value, and promote social justice.
Ramnath K. Chellappa, associate dean and professor of information systems and operations management for Goizueta Business School, says that while the development of AI methods and technologies falls squarely in the domain of hard sciences, their impact is felt throughout all areas of study. “Nowhere is it more evident than in the world of business where new models have emerged to personalize creation of content, services, and production,” Chellappa says. “Building a community around AI at Emory is great way to engage multiple perspectives and will have a significant impact on university-wide pedagogy.”
“Building a community around AI at Emory is a great way to engage multiple perspectives and will have a significant impact on university-wide pedagogy.”
— Ramnath K. Chellappa, associate dean and professor of information systems and operations management for Goizueta Business School
That’s why the initiative is not just about recruiting academics, faculty members, and renowned researchers to Emory. It’s also about the students, from undergrad to grad student to PhD candidate—in every college, school, major, and minor—being ready to not only enter, but also influence a world that is increasingly built around machine learning.
Through the initiative, the provost envisions not only a formal curriculum incorporating AI into multiple majors and minors, but also creating AI workshops, lectures, and library resources open to anyone on campus, for credit or not. “I would like to see AI-related topics be ubiquitous on campus,” says Provost Bellamkonda. “It’s important to prepare the leaders of tomorrow—and AI is both our today and our tomorrow.”
Story by Tony Rehagen. Photography courtesy of Anant Madabhushi, Gari Clifford, Ramnath K. Chellappa. Opening image Getty Images. Design by Elizabeth Hautau Karp.