This fall, Iowa State University will begin offering a two-year Master of Science degree program in artificial intelligence, through the computer science department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

ISU expects to welcome five students in the program this fall, and eventually have class sizes of 60-70 in the next few years, said Hridesh Rajan, Kingland Professor of Data Analytics and computer science department chair.  

“This program was a direct result of visits that we did with students and their parents. … There’s a number of them who said, ‘We are hearing that artificial intelligence is going to be really important for the future. Do you have any degree programs that focus on this?’” Rajan said.

(Related story: Regents approve Iowa State University graduate program in artificial intelligence)

Below, Rajan answered a few questions with innovationIOWA about the program’s upcoming launch.

What can students expect to encounter in this program?

AI is about incorporating intelligence and software. We are making use of AI on a regular basis, even though we may not realize that we are making use of AI.

When I got up this morning, I picked up my phone and said, “Hey, Siri, tell me what the weather’s going to be like today.” In the process of making that request and getting the answer back, I made use of multiple AI techniques and algorithms: The first one is taking my voice and converting it to text. There was a model of AI techniques that were made use of. … In this simple request we made use of three different AI algorithms without actually knowing that we use it. It’s really quite important and has become an integral part of our daily lives.

Our hope is to train and produce graduates that can work on building and enhancing components of artificial intelligence. These individuals should be able to understand and make practical use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data techniques, but they should also be able to communicate the results to stakeholders. They should be able to communicate the capabilities and limitations of AI techniques, and they should understand the ethical consideration that AI techniques [have].

What challenges will industry professionals be dealing with in the next few years?

We are seeing in industry the need to be able to run efficient algorithms on large-scale data. In the Siri example, there’s conversion from voice to text, then text to the meaning of the sentence. These AI algorithms rely on being able to consume big data in an efficient manner, and I think that’s become really important.

Another AI technique that’s really important is natural language processing. We are seeing not just Siri, but things like chatbots that are often used by companies to respond to routine inquiries. … That’s an example of an AI trying to understand what we are saying.

[AI language processing] is going to be more natural, able to communicate with human beings in a manner that fits both of us and meets in the middle, so to speak.

Making machines “see” is becoming really important for a variety of reasons — the most obvious one is cars that will drive themselves. … They make sense of the world via their cameras and other associated sensors. Computer vision is an important skill to have.

How will this program engage students in ethical questions?

We are taking a cross-sectional approach in the sense that these will be interwoven within the courses that our graduates will take. Knowing about these capabilities and their limitations is an important aspect of education this program will provide to graduates.

This is a first-in-the-state program, and it’s timely preparation for a career that is needed in the 21st century.