A.I. Versus the Coronavirus
A new consortium of top scientists will be able to use some of the world’s most advanced supercomputers to look for solutions.
The Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.Credit…C3.ai
Advanced computers have defeated chess masters and learned how to pick through mountains of data to recognize faces and voices. Now, a billionaire developer of software and artificial intelligence is teaming up with top universities and companies to see if A.I. can help curb the current and future pandemics.
Thomas M. Siebel, founder and chief executive of C3.ai, an artificial intelligence company in Redwood City, Calif., said the public-private consortium would spend $367 million in its initial five years, aiming its first awards at finding ways to slow the new coronavirus that is sweeping the globe.
“I cannot imagine a more important use of A.I.,” Mr. Siebel said in an interview.
Known as the C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute, the new research consortium includes commitments from Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago, as well as C3.ai and Microsoft. It seeks to put top scientists onto gargantuan social problems with the help of A.I. — its first challenge being the pandemic.
The new institute will seek new ways of slowing the pathogen’s spread, speeding the development of medical treatments, designing and repurposing drugs, planning clinical trials, predicting the disease’s evolution, judging the value of interventions, improving public health strategies and finding better ways in the future to fight infectious outbreaks.
Condoleezza Rice, a former U.S. secretary of state who serves on the C3.ai board and was recently named the next director of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank on the Stanford campus, called the initiative a unique opportunity to “better manage these phenomena and avert the worst outcomes for humanity.”
The new institute plans to award up to 26 grants annually, each featuring up to $500,000 in research funds in addition to computing resources. It requires the principal investigators to be located at the consortium’s universities but allows partners and team members at other institutions. It wants coronavirus proposals to be submitted by May and plans to award its first grants in June. The research findings are to be made public.
The institute’s co-directors are S. Shankar Sastry of the University of California, Berkeley, and Rayadurgam Srikant of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The computing power is to come from C3.ai and Microsoft, as well as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. The schools run some of the world’s most advanced supercomputers.
Successful A.I. can be extremely hard to deliver, especially in thorny real-world problems such as self-driving cars. When asked if the institute was less a plan for practical results than a feel-good exercise, Mr. Siebel replied, “The probability of something good not coming out of this is zero.”
In recent decades, many rich Americans have sought to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research, in some cases outdoing what the federal government can achieve because its goals are often unadventurous and its budgets unpredictable.
Born in 1952, Mr. Siebel studied history and computer science at the University of Illinois and was an executive at Oracle before founding Siebel Systems in 1993. It pioneered customer service software and merged with Oracle in 2006. He founded what came to be named C3.ai in 2009.
The first part of the company’s name, Mr. Siebel said in an email, stands for the convergence of three digital trends: big data, cloud computing and the internet of things, with A.I. amplifying their power. Last year, he laid out his thesis in a book — “Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction.” C3.ai works with clients on projects like ferreting out digital fraud and building smart cities.
In an interview, Eric Horvitz, the chief scientist of Microsoft and a medical doctor who serves on the spinoff institute’s board, likened the push for coronavirus solutions to a compressed moon shot.
The power of the approach, he said, comes from bringing together key players and institutions. “We forget who is where and ask what we can do as a team,” Dr. Horvitz said.
Seeing artificial intelligence as a good thing — perhaps a lifesaver — is a sharp reversal from how it often gets held in dread. Critics have assailed A.I. as dangerously powerful, even threatening the enslavement of humanity to robots with superhuman powers.
“In no way am I suggesting that A.I. is all sweetness and light,” Mr. Siebel said. But the new institute, he added, is “a place where it can be a force for good.”
William J. Broad is a science journalist and senior writer. He joined The Times in 1983, and has shared two Pulitzer Prizes with his colleagues, as well as an Emmy Award and a DuPont Award. @WilliamJBroad
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