Amazon, U. of I. tout plans for expanding AI research at kickoff event

The event was part of Amazon’s joint partnership with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to create a center that would focus on the development and research of AI into a new, more intelligent form.

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The Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where the Amazon-Illinois Center for Conversational Experiences is located.

The Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where the Amazon-Illinois Center for Conversational Experiences is located.

Aidan Sadovi/For the Sun-Times

Amazon and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign came together for an all-day event Tuesday to kick off its Amazon-Illinois Center for Conversational Experiences, or AICE.

AICE, first announced in March, is a joint partnership between the university and Amazon to research and develop artificial intelligence into a new, more intelligent form.

Tuesday’s event aimed to outline research goals, identify problems and solutions in the exploding field of AI research and bring students and faculty together with Amazon executives.

Such a meeting, according to Associate Dean of Research Harley Johnson, was indicative of the strong relationships the university has with corporate partners. Johnson told the room — which slowly grew in attendance with students and professors — that the university had amassed $300 million in externally sponsored research in the past year.

Amazon Director of Applied Science Ruhi Sarikaya presented a PowerPoint that explained its goal of making AI act as an “indispensable assistant” in the home.

“Our vision is to be able to serve our customers by being an indispensable assistant,” Sarikaya said. “We like to be where our customers are.”

A slide was presented comparing the previous generation of Amazon’s Alexa to the possible capabilities of a new Amazon machine that could become a household fixture — telling someone when a baby is crying, turning on lights and independently opening, closing and locking doors.

UIUC professor and AICE Director Heng Ji also pointed to AI’s utilization in drug discovery, which could present opportunities in fields like cancer research.

Sarikaya and Ji were joined by Vincent Ponzo of Amazon, who helps connect Amazon scientists with academics on AI and machine learning, and other scientists and researchers.

It’s unclear what else was discussed during the event, which was open to students, as the Sun-Times was asked to leave due to proprietary concerns.

Ji previously told the Sun-Times that one of the center’s missions is to create something that does more than just “chat.”

“We want the system to have a sort of brain, a knowledge base … so that it can be more knowledgeable than a lot of humans, for example, and the conversation can be more informative,” Ji said.

Amazon will invest $1 million into the center over a period of two years, according to a records request. The first year will involve funding five research projects, mostly centered on LLMs, or Large Language models.

Amazon has been making a push into AI, announcing Monday that it would invest $4 billion into AI startup Anthropic.

Meanwhile, it is facing scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission. Amazon is being sued by U.S. regulators and 17 states, though not Illinois, over allegations that the company abuses its position in the marketplace to inflate prices on other platforms, overcharge sellers and stifle competition.

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