Self-driving cars, single-pilot commercial planes, robotic soldiers, and widespread gene editing may still be things of the future, but a new research center in San Antonio is working to bring these and other artificial intelligence innovations to life. 

The University of Texas at San Antonio officially launched its newest research center, the UTSA Matrix AI Consortium, on Thursday morning via a livestream kickoff event. The consortium will bring together experts studying artificial intelligence to expand the use and deployment of AI. 

“This initiative is a concerted effort to promote AI innovation, something I’m a big fan about these days,” UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said. “Such kinds of collaborations between government, university, and industry across the globe are essential for tackling the grand challenges we face.”

Matrix will be directed by Dhireesha Kudithipudi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science at UTSA. The consortium is a partnership among researchers at UTSA, UT Health San Antonio, the Southwest Research Institute, and the global science community. There currently are 65 members, Kudithipudi said.

Operating for now out of the North Paseo Building on UTSA’s main campus, it will focus on four areas of research, each led by two field experts. The four areas are augmenting human capabilities, machine learning and deployment, neuro-inspired AI, and trustworthy AI. 

“As AI is becoming omnipresent and transforming our world, Matrix’s team aims to strive for scientific excellence in AI research and develop holistic solutions for human beings, while offering rigorous research training opportunities that transcend disciplinary boundaries,” Kudithipudi said during the virtual launch event. “At Matrix, we see AI as defined by [cognitive scientist] John McCarthy, where it is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines with humans at the center.”

The eight research leads have access to more than $10 million for their research, she said. Funding is coming from multiple sources including donations and grants, Kudithipudi added.

The area of augmenting human capabilities will look at how to use machines to supplement and support human analysis and will be led by Amina Qutub, of UTSA biomedical engineering, and Paula Shireman, of UT Health San Antonio surgery.

Christopher Mentzer of Southwest Research Institute and Murtuza Jadliwala of UTSA computer science will lead the area of machine learning and deployment, which will look at which algorithms are best for solving a problem and then applying AI to address it.

Neuro-inspired AI will look at how AI can be used to better study the human brain and how it can further imitate human problem-solving. It will be led by Peter Fox of UT Health San Antonio research imaging and Fidel Santamaria of UTSA biology. 

Nicole Beebe, of UTSA information systems and cybersecurity, and Ram Krishnan, of UTSA electrical and computer engineering, will focus on trustworthy AI – on how to make AI better at overall problem solving and having more reliable outcomes.

Matrix will utilize state-of-the-art technology, Kudithipudi said. It will move to a more permanent home in 2022, where it will be an integrated research unit in the new School of Data Science at the university’s downtown campus, she said.

Kudithipudi said that Matrix aims to help make AI more accessible and easy to use.

“Often AI systems today … cannot robustly operate in continuously changing environments and do not offer trustworthy solutions that foster human engagement and broader adoption,” she said.

New research based on Census Bureau data revealed this month that only about 8.9 percent of 583,000 U.S. businesses were using some form of AI in late 2018, the majority of which were larger companies. 

“In this foundational research trust, we aim to design next-generation AI … that draws inspiration from natural intelligence as a human brain [does],” she said.

Already, the researchers at Matrix have begun working with the City of San Antonio; Matrix was responsible for developing the crowd-sourced COVID-19 Resources and Recovery Site that went live March 15. The site includes links to testing sites, local case statistics, and food and financial help.

The new research center will put AI to work helping scientists better understand viruses and other diseases, creating and testing new medicines, filling in gaps where minorities are underrepresented in datasets, building better robots and machines, and making AI more reliable, Kudithipudi said. 

Matrix will work closely with UTSA’s National Security Collaboration Center in building partnerships with the defense community, Kudithipudi said. The NSCC is directed by retired Brig. Gen. Guy Walsh at UTSA’s downtown campus.

“Artificial intelligence is going to be an important piece of the NSCC ecosystem,” Walsh said. “Where we are today, whether it be with our airplanes or everything else, … they’re not programmed to [think]. And I really do believe that, listening to what [Matrix’s] team is doing with AI, we’re going to change that.”

Disclosure: UTSA is a Rivard Report business member. For a full list of supporters, click here.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.