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Shaping the future of artificial intelligence to serve society: Emory’s AI.Humanity initiative
AI humanity program at Emory University

Will robotic home health aides ever possess the compassion and technical expertise to care for the most vulnerable among us? Can artificial intelligence (AI) adequately recover the voiceless from the historical record? What can we do to make sure AI revolutionizes our world for the better?

For Ravi Bellamkonda, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, questions like these are at the heart of AI.Humanity, a major university-wide initiative launched this academic year.

“Emory seeks to realize the full potential of technology to shape the human endeavor,” Bellamkonda says. “We want to put AI into the service of humanity by using it to guide health, law, business, arts and humanities in thoughtful, ethical and wise ways.

Led by an advisory group of Emory faculty with diverse expertise in the field, the AI.Humanity initiative aims to recruit 60 to 75 new, leading faculty over three to five years. Hired through each of Emory’s nine schools, this broad range of AI scholars will be poised for interdisciplinary work in four major focus areas: business and free enterprise, human health, law and social justice, and arts and humanities.

The initiative will be sustained by a focus on community-building to encourage scholarly collaboration, as well as educational opportunities for faculty, students and the Emory community.

“AI has limitless opportunities as well as many grave challenges,” says President Gregory L. Fenves. “Emory faculty and students have the multidisciplinary expertise needed to develop creative and thoughtful innovations so that AI can be a force for good — improving our world and the human experience.”

“The most urgent research challenges in AI right now are complex and multifold, and they will require true interdisciplinary collaboration in order to be addressed — not just within the sciences but with the humanities and social sciences as well,” adds Lauren Klein, Winship Distinguished Research Professor of English and Quantitative Methods. “It’s thrilling to see the AI.Humanity initiative take shape at Emory, an institution that has long valued precisely this kind of transformative research.”

Enhancing a cross-campus network

New hire Anant Madabhushi performs the kind of work Klein describes. A bioengineer by training, Madabhushi will join Emory’s School of Medicine in July. Madabhushi uses artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to improve outcomes for individuals with cancer and other diseases, as well as to help tackle racial health disparities and global health.

With ethics at the core of the AI.Humanity initiative, the inaugural James W. Wagner Chair in Ethics will be another early hire primed for interdisciplinary work.

While the AI.Humanity initiative is new, these and other faculty recruits will join an established network of AI scholars — and ready collaborators — across campus.

AI has limitless opportunities as well as many grave challenges. Emory faculty and students have the multidisciplinary expertise needed to develop creative and thoughtful innovations so that AI can be a force for good — improving our world and the human experience.

“The intellectual and physical geography of the Emory campus are highly conducive to collaboration,” notes Lance Waller, a professor in the Rollins School of Public Health and leader of the Woodruff Health Science Center's strategic initiative in data science. “I’m a biostatistician, trained as an engineer, but when I want to add a new dimension to my research, I don’t have to go far to find art historians, epidemiologists, environmental lawyers and others with interesting ideas.

AI.Humanity is building on that in exciting new ways by recruiting a significant cohort of new colleagues who not only bring expertise in AI, but intentional focus in fields where Emory is already strong,” Waller adds. “The scope and the potential of the community we’re creating is truly powerful.”

Earlier this semester, Emory researchers met to learn about each other’s work in data science and artificial intelligence through the Constructive Collisions program, run through the Office of the Senior Vice President for Research. The office is also providing seed grant funding to connect Emory and Georgia Tech faculty to “spur new research collaborations and expand existing partnerships to leverage the artificial intelligence to improve society and our daily lives.”

Building on these beginnings, the AI.Humanity community subgroup Waller leads is actively working to create new opportunities for collaboration. These include offering pilot funding and incubators in which projects and workgroups can grow, as well as lecture series and workshops.

A second AI.Humanity subgroup is focused on expanding educational opportunities across campus.

“We believe in ‘Al for all,’” says leader Vaidy Sunderam, chair of the Department of Computer Science. “As the digital age advances, it’s becoming more and more important to have an understanding of what AI means, what it can and can’t do, how to interface with it and when to be wary of it.”

Infusing AI into both curricular and co-curricular spaces, the group is tasked with everything from promoting basic AI/ML (machine learning) literacy that allows students to answer questions like “What does it mean to be a citizen in a digital world?” to creating new interdisciplinary major, minor or certificate programs for those who want to focus more deeply.

Connecting AI to everyday life

The ongoing AI.Humanity Ethics Lecture Series is already bringing both educational and community-building opportunities to Emory. Held in April and May, it features world-renowned scholars approaching AI ethics from their own respective fields — computer science, philosophy and law — and highlights how critical ethical inquiry is to shaping the future of these fast-advancing technologies.

We want technology to help us realize the full potential of human beings, expressing themselves as a community informed by values, in a manner that we actively choose and shape. This is the space where Emory excels as a university, and where we seek to contribute to the world.

“Ethics is intrinsic to AI,” says Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory’s Center for Ethics and Raymond F. Schinazi Distinguished Research Chair in Jewish Bioethics. “By that I mean that the purpose of AI is to make decisions, and decisions themselves are always based on some set of values, and the consequences of those decisions have ethical implications.

“You cannot create AI without AI ethics,” Wolpe continues. “Emory’s ethics scholarship throughout its schools, its singular Center for Ethics and the promise of ‘ethical engagement’ in its vision statement situates Emory as the premier university to take AI ethics into the future.”

It's precisely this kind of broad perspective that will distinguish Emory’s approach to artificial intelligence research and education in a highly technical age, according to Bellamkonda. 

“We want technology to help us realize the full potential of human beings, expressing themselves as a community informed by values, in a manner that we actively choose and shape,” he says. “This is the space that Emory seeks to pursue. It is the space where we excel as a university, and where we seek to contribute to the world.”


Visit the AI.Humanity website to learn more about the initiative, including news and events.

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