MBZUAI taps Berkeley professor to help build a start-up-friendly campus

Prof Michael Jordan is the Abu Dhabi university's first laureate professor

MBZUAI is ramping up efforts to help graduates pursue start-up ideas coming out of their AI research. Photo: MBZUAI

Abu Dhabi's artificial intelligence university has tapped a celebrated academic in machine learning and AI research from the University of California, Berkeley, to advise on accelerating entrepreneurship and attracting top talent to campus.

Michael Jordan has been named the first laureate professor at Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) and honorary director of a new Laureate Faculty Programme to attract other academic leaders in the field, which he will help build with university president Eric Xing.

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People have heard of Michael Jordan in the basketball world but Michael Jordan is an even bigger star in our world
Eric Xing, MBZUAI president

“People have heard of Michael Jordan in the basketball world but Michael Jordan is an even bigger star in our world,” Dr Xing said of Mr Jordan, who was cited by Science Magazine as the most influential author in computer science in 2016.

The new laureate programme aims to be a “unique venue for leading researchers to dive into areas of inquiry, build research teams and communities and carry out intimate scientific exchanges without worrying about administrative burdens and lack of access to funding, computing infrastructure and data”, Mr Xing said.

He added that the role of the “modern university” is “to be a catalyst for economic development” in the community where it operates, connecting students and faculty to entrepreneurial and commercial opportunity. Mr Jordan, who oversees PhD students at UC Berkeley, many of whom have gone on to successful careers in Silicon Valley, will be a critical adviser in shaping that strategy.

Prof Michael Jordan, MBZUAI's first laureate professor. Photo: MBZUAI

Silicon Valley is widely regarded as the gold standard of connecting universities to the local economy.

The area has been a global centre of technological innovation for the last half century, benefiting enormously from the pipeline of research and alumnae coming from its neighbours, UC Berkeley and Stanford University, in the southern San Francisco Bay Area.

Cities around the world including Abu Dhabi are competing to replicate the Silicon Valley model.

Few have succeeded, Mr Jordan said, because universities have not prioritised funding for early-stage start-ups or research that addresses practical, real world challenges with sound business models.

He, along with Mr Xing and the university's provost Fakhreddine Karray, are aiming to emphasise these areas. Autonomous driving and supply chain optimisation for the logistics sector are two research areas ripe for MBZUAI, according to Mr Xing.

MBZUAI has a unique opportunity to be a regional leader in the field of AI, as the only graduate-level university in the world singularly developing AI tools.

With more than 100 graduate degree programmes in AI globally, the technology’s development and education centres are largely concentrated in North America, China and the UK.

To that end, Mr Jordan said Abu Dhabi is well placed to tap into massive pent-up demand for education in the field of AI from young people in China, India and other parts of South-east Asia.

The machine learning PhD programme at UC Berkeley, for example, attracted about 3,000 applications from all over the world during the last admissions round, for just 10 slots, he said. He estimated that 1,500 applicants were eligible for a spot.

“We’re in a sweet spot where the supply side [for students in AI] has completely changed over the last 10 years,” he said, leaving a lot of room for new programmes to succeed.

The university is working to identify and help create a pipeline of innovators and start-ups that merit any stage of funding and companies and government stakeholders here in the UAE “who could invest into both people and projects”, he said.

One funding model to look at from UC Berkeley is The House Fund.

The House is a pool of venture capital money, largely capitalised by the university's endowment, to invest in early stage or seed stage start-ups founded by students, alumnae and professors.

“The UAE is well positioned,” Mr Jordan said, to succeed where others have failed.

“It’s well connected to the world which means people will want to come here, you can attract people with ideas. There is funding infrastructure … but it can be done better, [funding] should be connected to the university,” he added. “It cannot be a tower on a hill.”

The launch of Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence: in pictures

Updated: January 14th 2022, 3:51 AM