NSF Adds 11 New AI Research Institutes to Its Collaborative, Nationwide Network 

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Top thinkers across multiple sectors are set to jointly engage with the evolving technology.

The National Science Foundation officially extended the reach of its National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes across more of the United States. 

On the heels of funding seven institutes in 2020, the agency last week unveiled its establishment of 11 new ones—where officials will strategically pursue AI research in complex realms like augmented learning, cybersecurity, precision agriculture and more.

“The expertise of the researchers engaged in the AI Research Institutes spans a wide range of disciplines, providing an integrated effort to tackle the challenges society faces, drawing upon both foundational and use-inspired research,” Director of NSF’s Robust Intelligence Program Rebecca Hwa told Nextgov Tuesday. “NSF has long been able to bring together numerous fields of scientific inquiry, and in this program that includes such disciplines as computer and information science and engineering, cognitive science and psychology, economics and game theory, engineering and control theory, ethics, linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy—and that has positioned us to lead in efforts to expand the frontiers of AI.”

In all, the 18 institutes NSF is investing in so far underpin research spanning 40 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, Hwa confirmed.

With roots tracing back to the Trump administration, this program aims to bolster America’s technological edge. Each of the institutes acts as a central hub for members of the public, private and academic sectors to collaboratively engage with and accelerate the evolving technology. Together, they all form a broader nationwide network to strategically chase AI-driven advancements. NSF leads the initiative in partnership with the Homeland Security Department, the Agriculture Department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Google, Amazon, Intel and Accenture.

The announcement follows a program solicitation for a second round of National AI Research Institutes, which NSF published last year. “Proposals submitted in response to this solicitation underwent a rigorous NSF merit review process, which comprised a panel of experts who considered the proposals based on NSF’s merit review criteria and solicitation-specific review criteria,” Hwa explained. Of those, a small subset of proposals underwent a virtual site visit—and then NSF program directors arrived at an award slate based on the review inputs.

Although the science agency partnered with other government organizations and industry leaders to fund programs aligned with certain solicitation themes, NSF retained the final decision on which projects to fund. 

“Each institute is NSF-funded at about $20 million—including partner funding—distributed over a period of five years, and funding partners from the private sector will contribute an additional $5 million each to several of the institutes,” Hwa said. “For those institutes supported partly by industry funds, the industry partners may provide additional support, such as datasets, but those specific collaborations are still being developed by the institutes. Two of the AI Institutes are fully funded by USDA-NIFA, totaling $20 million each.”

In this round, the newly named institutes include:

  • NSF AI Institute for Collaborative Assistance and Responsive Interaction for Networked Groups, or AI-CARING—led by the Georgia Institute of Technology, partially funded by Amazon and Google.
  • NSF AI Institute for Advances in Optimization—led by Georgia Tech, partially funded by Intel.
  • NSF AI Institute for Learning-Enabled Optimization at Scale, or TILOS—led by the University of California San Diego in collaboration with five other universities, partially funded by Intel.
  • NSF AI Institute for Intelligent Cyberinfrastructure with Computational Learning in the Environment, or ICICLE—led by the Ohio State University, fully funded by NSF.
  • NSF AI Institute for Future Edge Networks and Distributed Intelligence, or AI-EDGE—led by the Ohio State University, partially funded by DHS.
  • NSF AI Institute for Edge Computing Leveraging Next-generation Networks, or Athena—led by Duke University, partially funded by DHS.
  • NSF AI Institute for Dynamic Systems—led by the University of Washington, partially funded by DHS.
  • NSF AI Institute for Engaged Learning—led by North Carolina State University, fully funded by NSF.
  • NSF AI Institute for Adult Learning and Online Education, or ALOE—led by the Georgia Research Alliance, partially funded by Accenture.
  • USDA-NIFA Institute for Agricultural AI for Transforming Workforce and Decision Support, or AgAID—led by Washington State University, funded by USDA-NIFA.
  • The AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture, or AIIRA—led by Iowa State University, funded by USDA-NIFA.

NSF is set to “provide general oversight and monitoring of the institutes to help ensure effective performance and administration, as well as facilitate any coordination among the institutes,” according to Hwa. The lead university for each one will work with officials across academia, local and regional government, nonprofits and the private sector. 

“With collaborations spanning the United States, the program will bring a vast set of expertise, resources, and infrastructure to bear on the challenges the institutes will be addressing,” she said.

The agency’s announcement highlights some of the complexities each of the institutes will explore. Research will hone in on topics like ​​AI-driven digital twins that model plants at an unprecedented scale; education in fundamental AI and machine learning theory, algorithms and applications; ways to make AI a more accessible plug-and-play technology; and how it might be used to help older adults lead more independent lives, among other topics.

“Even though the first AI Institutes were established less than one year ago, they have been making great progress in building infrastructure and laying the groundwork for their activities,” Hwa said. “They are also conducting public outreach to raise awareness of their activities.”

This isn’t a regular, recurring program, she noted. Still, interested individuals can keep up to date online for future announcements about relevant solicitations. The agency intends to see it reach all 50 states.

“NSF funding will help the United States capitalize on the full potential of AI to strengthen the economy, advance job growth, and bring benefits to society for decades to come,” Hwa added. “Indeed, today’s AI revolution has been spawned by the results of federally funded research going back many decades.”

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