Posted by Reid Simmons on Oct 03, 2019

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Students considering a career in artificial intelligence need to ask themselves: Am I a First Penguin?

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Students considering a career in artificial intelligence need to ask themselves: Am I a First Penguin?
The First Penguin was an award that the late Randy Pausch, a professor of CS at Carnegie Mellon University, presented to students who dared to attempt innovative, but risky, projects. The award’s name was derived from the first penguin in a group willing to risk jumping into unknown waters in hopes of finding food.
A student studying AI today must have the same tolerance for risk and uncertainty. In AI, they will need to solve complex problems where the solution often isn’t cut and dried. They will be designing systems that interact with people and with the world at large. The potential is great for creating something spectacular, but it involves careful analysis, creativity, and hard work.
Take autonomous vehicles, for instance. Combining sensors and navigation hardware so a car can drive itself on city streets is hard; it gets substantially harder when the car also must cope with icy roads, potholes and that most unpredictable of road hazards, human drivers and pedestrians. Even human drivers aren’t always sure how to handle those situations and it’s not any easier for software.
If AI specialists must like doing messy work, the good news is that there’s plenty of messy work to do. AI experts already play significant roles in the financial industry, tech firms and in robotics. They build recommendation systems for online retailers, speech recognition systems for smart speakers, and smart home systems that detect the needs and wants of occupants. It won’t be long before medicine, manufacturing, and service industries – not to mention entertainment – come to rely on AI. 
AI is going to influence all of aspects of technology very soon. That likely will change the nature of work for most people. Consider computer vision, an area of AI that already is having major impacts. Computer systems already can detect skin cancers better than a dermatologist; that doesn’t mean they will replace dermatologists, but they likely will make dermatologists better and allow them to use their skills and talents in different ways. 
Likewise, AI systems will increasingly do tasks that traditionally have been part of people’s jobs, causing many jobs to be restructured and new jobs to be created. AI specialists will play a key role in this process.
Preparing for a career in AI is similar in many respects to the larger field of CS. High school students should take as much math as they can and should learn basic programming skills. Advanced Placement courses in CS are advisable. Those who want to get an early start on learning AI can take tutorials included in the Tensor Flow and Pytorch online libraries or use the OpenAI Gym.
CS and AI touch so many scientific and artistic disciplines, however, that students shouldn’t focus only on CS-related courses. Continuing to develop interests in biology, music, linguistics, psychology, or any number of other subjects is totally compatible with an interest in CS or AI.
At Carnegie Mellon, where we launched an undergraduate degree in AI last year, the core curriculum is the same for all our CS students – courses in programming languages, computational theory, and computer system development. In the second year, when students can declare an AI major, they begin to take additional course work in AI-related subjects such as statistics and probability, computational modeling, machine learning, human-AI interaction, and symbolic computation.
Because AI can have such profound impacts on so many aspects of work and daily life, we place a lot of emphasis on ethics and social responsibility. We include independent study opportunities in using AI for social good, such as improving transportation, health care, or education.
We’re still in the pioneering stages of AI; it wasn’t that long ago that AI simply didn’t work well, and many computer scientists shied away from labeling their work as AI. That changed as AI systems rapidly progressed in the past decade. Adventurous students have an opportunity to become part of a growing field and help shape it for the future.
Learn more
Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, by Russell and Norvig

About the Author

Reid Simmons is a research professor of robotics and computer science (CS) at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Artificial Intelligence undergraduate degree in the School of CS. His research interests focus on developing reliable, highly autonomous systems that operate in rich, uncertain environments, as well as robots that socially interact with humans.