Last Monday, the Viterbi Voices podcast released our newest series: Engineering Impact, which focuses on groups and people in Viterbi applying engineering for social good. In the first episode, I spoke with several students from CAIS++, USC’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society’s Student Branch, which is an undergraduate group on campus developing AI applications for social good. Lucas and Lauren, two of the students on the podcast, were among the group of undergraduates that founded the club. Today, CAIS++ is a thriving organization on campus that has developed a curriculum to teach its members about AI and has a portfolio of projects that bridge AI and other disciplines. They solve problems in medicine, urban planning, and even machine learning fairness. I’d encourage you to listen to this podcast, not just because it’s about harnessing AI for good, but because it offers insight into why I chose USC and why I am proud to be a USC student today.
First, CAIS++ and my conversation with them emphasizes the incredible amount of opportunity available at USC. I noticed this as a prospective student and have since realized the breadth of ways in which Viterbi supports and propels their students. Maybe like Lucas and Lauren, you want to start an ambitious club that not only mixes outside disciplines with AI but teaches other students how to work responsibly with AI tools. You can do that here and with the backing of Viterbi. Do you want to do research? Do you want to start your freshman year? Here, research freshman year is possible and often with the financial support of Viterbi through the Merit Research Program. I started doing research just months into my freshman year in a robotics lab, where I still work as a sophomore. Do you want to study abroad? Study abroad programs are available at USC even to engineers! Do you want to study abroad but are nervous about missing coursework? USC has a special study abroad program for engineers called Viterbi Summer Overseas where USC professors join students in a European city for 8 weeks over the summer. While abroad, they will teach the same courses they teach at USC. I participated in this program the summer after my freshman year in Florence, Italy, where I took Thermodynamics and a class that was actually taught by an Italian professor, which focused on the history of food in the Mediterranean (definitely the best course I have ever taken). Because Viterbi is relatively small, there are endless opportunities as long as you take advantage of them.
Luckily, USC students are the type to seek out all opportunities, which is another reason why I chose USC: the student body. Most students in Viterbi want to take engineering beyond the classroom and beyond the field itself. CAIS++ represents one-way students have done this — they have built up their AI skills, primarily on their own time, identified problems around the world they care about and are now working on solving them. This sort of student is not unusual at USC — while students in Viterbi are of the highest academic caliber, they think beyond their grades and most are ultimately focused larger issues. For me, this has created an exciting environment that isn’t so much competitive as it is enriching. I am constantly inspired by what my peers are doing — mixing AI with social good, starting businesses, creating animation apps. Beyond creating cool things, I find the people at USC to be welcoming, which is something I first realized on a tour around this time my senior year of high school. Anyone on campus was willing to talk to me, show me around, and give me directions. This sort of attitude now extends to being a student here. People are simply nice, which is important, especially when school can be challenging.
Great people at USC make it easy to work together, in and outside of engineering, which is another one of the primary reasons why I picked USC. There is a collaborative nature to the school: I study with my friends before exams, and we even have a program called Supplemental Instruction where students can go to study sessions guided by another student who has done well in the class during the previous semester. Like most things at USC, collaboration extends beyond the classroom. CAIS++, which is a joint effort between Viterbi and the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work exemplifies this idea in the sense that they work with non-engineers on many of their projects. They have a project, for example, where they are working with linguists to use artificial intelligence to preserve dying languages. In a broader sense, USC fosters interdisciplinary study because we have world-class programs outside of engineering in cinema, dance, music, and business, just to name a few. I came into USC with interests in English, art, and architecture, so this aspect was important to me. Now, I am taking classes in the School of Cinematic Arts as part of my Future Cinema minor.
In short, I chose USC because of opportunity, community, and collaboration. For those of you currently making college decisions, consider the attributes that will make a school vibrant academically, socially, and in spirit. In reality, engineering is pretty similar everywhere. Calculus won’t change school to school. Newton’s Laws of Motion dictate classical mechanics anywhere. What will make your college experience, or at least what has made mine, is the organizations you can get involved in, the opportunities you have to apply your skills, and most importantly the people you meet. With that, I hope that you all find the place where you can have all of these things in order to become the best engineer possible. For me, that place was USC!
Listen to the CAIS++ podcast here: https://soundcloud.com/viterbivoices/4-113-mixing-ai-and-social-good-with-cais