Colby College President David Greene, outside the Center in downtown Waterville. The college announced plans for a new institute focusing on artificial intelligence.  Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — The new Colby College Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence will be the first of its kind, school officials say.

Announced by the college at a virtual event Wednesday evening, the institute is believed by administration to be the first and only of its nature at a small U.S. liberal arts school.

“It’s essential that people who are developing the next tools for AI and how they are applied, … be fully educated across the disciplines and be able to understand the consequences of AI” Colby College President David Greene said in a phone interview Thursday. “AI is incredibly powerful. It is going to be in our lives in all kind of ways that we can’t even predict right now. In fact, it already is in many ways that we don’t even notice.”

The college believes tying the AI institute into its liberal arts background will complement AI learning. The intention is down the road, all Colby students will immerse themselves in AI at some point during their college careers.

Greene stressed the importance of maintaining ethical sensibilities when utilizing AI.

“There have to be people that have a deep understanding of history and culture and sociology.” People need to know “how these new tools can be used for better or for worse,” Greene said. People educated in the liberal arts have those tools to understand the ethics of AI, and can help “develop AI in a way that could be for the good.”

A $30 million gift from the Davis family and its charitable foundation trustee Andrew Davis, Colby Class of 1985, made the institute possible. It will be officially named The Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The Davis family previously provided a $25 million gift in 2017 to create DavisConnects, a post-graduate professional based initiative, and a $10 million gift in 2013 to construct the Davis Science Center.

“Addressing the complex questions surrounding AI requires a holistic analysis and response that can only come from a broad liberal arts perspective,” Andrew Davis said in a release. “With its distinctive tradition of interdisciplinary scholarship, exceptional expertise in the sciences and strong focus on engaging with the world, Colby is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in preparing students for this incredibly important work, and we’re very pleased to support this important initiative.”

The Davis Institute will focus on AI and machine learning, hoping to pioneer how liberal arts colleges can utilize AI. The institute is slated to open in the fall of 2021, following a national search for its founding director. The Davis Institute will hire an initial cohort of six new experts in AI for different disciplines, from computer science to English literature. Funding for Colby faculty interested in incorporating AI into their teaching and research will also be available.

Greene, Colby’s president, hopes to make Maine a tech hub through partnerships. Northeastern University’s Roux Institute in Portland is a potential partner. Greene sees Waterville as having potential for an “ecosystem for innovation” with the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence as the catalyst for a communitywide technology hub and environment.

“There needs to be additional spots where technology takes hold in terms of the workforce, and provide an exceptional number of opportunities for people who live there,” Greene said. “I think Waterville is poised for that.”

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