BYLINE: Amy Choate-Nielsen

Newswise — Two major investments in technology research and development were announced Thursday, Oct. 12, by University of Utah President Taylor Randall, marking the U’s expanding partnerships with industry and government players in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and semiconductors.

Education can have an incredible societal impact on this state, and we do it in two fundamental ways. We teach and develop a workforce. And two, there are a number of our universities …. that do basic research to change the technological trajectory of our industry and our society,” Randall told a defense industry gathering at the Salt Lake City International Airport. “I also believe fundamentally that the role of our educational system is to collaborate to make the societal change.”

The U president used the occasion to unveil the establishment of a statewide semiconductor research network built on the existing Utah Nanofab and of the $100 million Responsible AI Initiative, featuring an emphasis on minimizing the potential harms of this technology that is expected to disrupt commerce and culture.

Joined by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and legislative leaders, Randall made the remarks at the event hosted by the Utah Aerospace and Defense Association (UADA) celebrating its rebranding as “47G” and Utah’s place as a vital hub for technological advances.

The trade association’s new name pays homages to the Utah pioneers who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, as well as to the test pilots who broke acceleration records, hitting 47 Gs, according to Aaron Starks, the organization’s president and CEO.

Utah’s frontier landscape, entrepreneurial spirit and pioneer legacy make us a natural choice for those seeking the freedom to push the boundaries of technology,” Starks said.

In his remarks, Cox said that because of clashing politics, Americans are forgetting how to work together, and the rest of the country could use some “Utah weird.”

"What makes Utah special is collaboration and innovation. President Randall and I spoke about that this morning. It doesn’t exist everywhere. In fact, it doesn’t exist in many places anymore,” Cox said. “We have to be intentional about collaboration. An entire industry coming together, competitors who want to win coming together, because they know that in working together there’s abundance, not scarcity.”

Randall’s first announcement unveiled the new Utah Network for Integrated Computing and Semiconductor Research and Education, which will go by the acronym UNICOS, although U officials are simply calling it “The Network.” It will be led by Hanseup Kim, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who currently runs the Utah Nanofab.

Randall emphasized the U tech investments’ potential for serving the national defense as well as promoting economic development in Utah and cementing its future as a national tech hub.

“It’s a rather remarkable endeavor that will put Utah at the forefront of semiconductor development in the United States,” he said. “When you become extraordinary at semiconductor manufacturing, our national security becomes more secure. We don’t depend on the Chinese or other places to provide us with critical technology. The second thing that happens is that as speeds of those semiconductors increase—and increase dramatically—applications get laid on top of them.”

The ambitious AI project is to be led by Manish Parashar, director of the U’s Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute and a national leader in cyberinfrastructure. The $100 million, which is to be spent over the next seven to 10 years, will come from new donations and a repurposing of existing U resources, according to Randall.

“We’re repurposing, restructuring so that we can actually make that investment in our own infrastructure,” he said. “But we’re also looking for partners.”

The first $10 million comes from Utah technologist Clay Wilkes and his wife Marie through their philanthropic Red Crow Foundation.

“We’re calling this the Responsible AI Initiative,” Randall said. “Why? Because at the same time that artificial intelligence promises incredible human progress and it perhaps also presents a set of threats.”

The initiative will proceed in two prongs, the first devoted to “foundational” AI technology.

“This is the AI to understand AI, to put the guardrails around AI, perhaps to develop the defense applications of AI that will fight AI someday,” Randall explained.

The second prong is “translational” AI, which explores ways to create new applications for existing technologies that advance health care and other socially beneficial outcomes.

“We’re going to take the basic strengths of the University of Utah and try to create applications in different areas,” Randall said. “For example, we’re great in oncology. Imagine taking AI to develop new drugs to solve cancer. We are fantastic in the areas of population health. Imagine taking AI and actually driving personalized medicine.”