Abu Dhabi university recruits the ‘Michael Jordan of AI’

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Michael I. Jordan, a leading AI researcher and professor at Berkeley, will be joining the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence as laureate professor and honorary director of the Laureate Faculty Program.

Photo credit: ANNA NIELSON/WIRED

A MODERN UNIVERSITY is more than just a training ground for our future workforce, according to Michael Jordan, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Given talent and strong connections to the global market, it can be an incubator of ideas and help fuel the entrepreneurial ecosystem to greater heights. 

He looks to Berkeley as a blueprint to such a vision. “Silicon Valley was created as part of an outgrowth of the Bay Area intellectual infrastructure and its originators came from Berkeley and Stanford,” he explains, pointing to the $35 billion company DataBricks (spun out of Berkeley’s Amp Lab) as an example. “It was partly driven by machine learning students kind of complaining about the previous generation of software,” says Jordan. This spurred Matei Zaharia, a systems student at the same lab, to develop an open-source platform called Apache Spark, which is now one of the world’s most widely used pieces of software for AI.  

Berkeley professor Michael I. Jordan will help develop MBZUAI’s Laureate Faculty Program. (MBZUAI )

Jordan (not to be confused with the NBA superstar carrying the same name) has clearly spent some time pondering the subject of modern universities and their impact—and with good reason. As the first laureate professor at the Mohamed bin Zayed University for Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), and newly appointed honorary director of its Laureate Faculty program, he will play a key role in guiding AI researchers and advising the university as it sets its sights on becoming a heavyweight on the global AI landscape. 

He’s well positioned to do so. “People hear about Michael Jordan in basketball. But Michael Jordan in the world of AI is [an] even bigger superstar,” says MBZUAI president Eric Xing, citing Jordan’s machine-learning research, and adding that a 2016 Science article named Jordan as the world’s “most influential computer scientist.” Of course, that superlative is especially relevant to Xing; Jordan served as the university president’s PhD advisor in the early 2000s. 

MBZUAI president Eric Xing (ANNA NIELSON/WIRED )

Jordan’s mentorship will likely take on a different form for MBZUAI students, as the world’s first graduate-level, research-based AI university looks to become a heavyweight on the global academic landscape. Over the past year, MBZUAI has more than doubled the size of its faculty (who published 162 papers in leading AI conferences), and opened its doors to graduate students—who quickly won top prizes at conferences like GITEX and HackForSpace. 

The Laureate Faculty Program that Jordan will help develop is designed to be a space for leading researchers to pursue problems “without worrying about administrative burdens and lack of access to funding, computing infrastructure, and data,” according to Xing. Jordan says that he envisions the program bringing in a “revolving door of really good people,” allowing a group of leading minds to bring their ideas and connections together in Abu Dhabi. 

Ultimately, Xing says that such programs can not just help attract young and diverse talent to the university, but also serve as a resource for UAE decision-makers becoming acquainted with AI’s possibilities. 

“I’m hoping that this program will be a lasting one and also will be able to branch out,” he says, “so that the university is not just a place to conduct advanced research and development, but also to really realize its social function of educating the general public.” 

For more information, visit MBZUAI online.