Students envision future of tech—from AI to computer programming

DOE, national labs host event aimed at inspiring next generation of problem-solvers

Artificial intelligence already powers intelligent software, like IBM’s Watson, and digital personal assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa.

But we are only at the beginning of the artificial intelligence revolution, and universities, laboratories and the U.S. Department of Energy are working to inspire and train the workforce of the future that can help define and shape the field.

That’s why the DOE partnered with the University of Chicago and its affiliated laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory on a recent event to teach and inspire middle and high school students to consider a future in developing AI technology.

“Whether you are in government, business or a scientist, there’s a big revolution coming, and it’s called artificial intelligence,” said Chris Fall, director of the DOE’s Office of Science, who spoke at the Oct. 1 event at the Gary Comer Youth Center. If young people are interested in understanding how Alexa works and becoming someone who builds AI tools, “we’re interested in talking to you,” he said. “Maybe I can talk you guys into becoming scientists and engineers.”

At the event, students visited interactive booths, played activities to crack a special code, checked out virtual reality headsets, and met with representatives from six national labs to learn more about careers in computing and AI.

Ranade Johnson, a sophomore at Urban Prep Bronzeville, said he loves to play AI-inspired video games like Detroit: Become Human, and came to the event because he was interested in a career as a video game designer. His favorite part of the event? Trying out the virtual reality headset. “I love technology that’s fun and educates you at the same time,” he said.

What the AI revolution means for kids

Other speakers at the event included Paul Kearns, director of Argonne; James Campos, director of the DOE’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity; and U.S. Representative Bobby Rush.

Students also heard from leading scientists in the field. Bobby Kasthuri, assistant professor in neurobiology at UChicago and a neuroscience researcher at Argonne; and Brian Nord, senior member of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at UChicago and associate scientist at Fermilab, held an informal “ask the scientist” chat, in which students asked questions about the definition of AI and where the field is headed.

“Technology that is involved in computer programming and artificial and neural networks is something that often not everybody has access to, and it’s going to be a big part of our future,” Nord said. “I think it’s important that many of us, especially the people here, learn about these tools so you can be a big part of shaping that future.”

AI is not just about creating new software, Kasthuri said. It also can help solve the questions you seek to answer about the world. Kasthuri originally wanted to become a doctor, but he soon realized that doctors didn’t understand the underlying mechanisms of mental illness, and treating it often involved guesswork. He thought if he could map out how the brain works, he could compare healthy brains to brains that had disease to better treat mental illness.

“It turned out you can’t do that without inventing a bunch of artificial intelligences algorithms to help us understand brains better so we can ultimately treat these diseases,” he said.

Bringing labs into the city

Many high school students who are interested in science and technology careers don’t realize that they have access not only to top universities, but also to two world-class DOE laboratories located just outside the city, said Juan de Pablo, vice president for national laboratories at UChicago.

“That’s why it is important for the university to help convene and participate in events like this one, in the south side of Chicago,” he said. “Argonne and Fermilab are working on research that could solve some of society’s most urgent problems, and it is critical that their work be shared with the city, to both educate and inspire the next generation of problem-solvers,” he said.

—Story first appeared on the Office of Research and National Laboratories website.