IBM Joins Effort to Build $200M AI, Cloud, Quantum Discovery Accelerator at the University of Illinois

By Todd R. Weiss

May 27, 2021

With demands for AI, hybrid cloud and quantum computing expanding daily, IBM is joining an initiative to build a Discovery Accelerator Institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to drive new research and innovations in some of the fastest-growing fields of study.

The collaboration also includes the State of Illinois in what is planned as a $200 million, 10-year initiative to erect a building and facilities for the new institute as well as increase access to technology education and skills development at the school.

The IBM-Illinois Discovery Accelerator Institute, which will be part of the Grainger College of Engineering at the school, will also focus on other emerging technologies including materials discovery and sustainability.

The exact funding amounts from IBM, the university and the state are not being disclosed. The $200 million in investments will be used for building construction as well as for research, hiring additional faculty and related needs.

“We do collaborations with universities on a fairly regular basis, but not [often] at this size,” which is larger than usual, Jeff Welser, the chief operating officer at IBM Research, told EnterpriseAI. Typically, university project collaborations involve a few hundred thousand dollars to $1 million a year, said Welser.

“When we do these larger partnerships, it’s when large partners want to get some skin in the game” in terms believing in the same technology areas where research and growth are needed, he said. “There’s a lot of research that needs to be done on AI and hybrid cloud, so there’s integration there, particularly for enterprises. We think that having AI involved with hybrid cloud is important to their businesses.”

The last large university collaboration involving IBM Research came in 2017 when the company unveiled a $240 million, 10-year investment to create the MIT-IBM Watson Lab at MIT for fundamental AI research, according to Welser.

IBM gets involved publicly in such projects particularly when there are opportunities to fuel and drive open source projects and innovations as well as active publication of research, he said. “It’s about building the ecosystem,” said Welser. “These are important research areas. We want to amplify that.”

The company has been involved with the university for the last four or five years through a smaller research center that is focused on AI, so the partners have had an ongoing relationship, said Welser.

Recently, additional discussions took place with the dean of the engineering school, Rashid Bashir, about research in hybrid cloud, AI, quantum computing and more, which are topics where IBM is also heavily involved, said Welser.

“We started to talk about the idea of creating an Accelerator combining AI, hybrid cloud and quantum,” he said. [Bashir] got pretty excited about that idea.”

It all began coming together because the university was also involved in such discussions with the state of Illinois, which is also providing funding for infrastructure and other components of the project.

IBM will be contributing money and people from IBM who will be going to the university and working directly with staff and students there on these subjects, said Welser. “Similarly, we expect to have some of the professors and post-doc students going to IBM as well, such as visiting scholars.”

Bashir, the dean of the engineering school, told EnterpriseAI that the latest collaboration with IBM builds on the foundational success of a 2016 IBM-Illinois Center for Cognitive Computing Systems Research (C3SR) partnership.

“This will expand our capabilities for research in AI, quantum and other areas,” said Bashir. The new building to house the upcoming institute is probably a couple years away from being built on the campus, he said.

The university has computer science and electrical and computer engineering departments that are in the top five in the nation, as well as a longstanding coordinated science laboratory and a National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

“There’s a lot of expertise here,” he said

Last August, the university was selected as the site for a National Science Foundation AI Institute and for a U.S. Department of Agriculture AI research institute to drive the NSF’s artificial intelligence research and expand AI research in farming and food processing.

Bashir said that work on the new research center and other parts of the project will begin this fall. The campus of about 50,000 students includes about 11,000 engineering students and about 4,000 computer science students.

“These technologies are going to change the future,” he said. “We want to be at the forefront of that with a world leader like IBM and making that impact.”

In addition to its AI, hybrid cloud and quantum work, the planned institute at the university will also emphasize initiatives to increase access to STEM education and high-tech workforce development, while also expanding the research capacity of IBM and the university by bringing together students, faculty members and industry researchers on the campus and at IBM’s facilities.

The AI and hybrid cloud research, which will have an emphasis on data protection and isolation, will explore how open source innovation and AI can be combined to drive the next era of cloud computing, as well as defining workforce skills and training that are needed to run increasingly powerful and critical workloads. The quantum work will involve systems, architectures, materials and algorithms, as well as a multi-node quantum testbed where researchers can explore distributed quantum processing and quantum networks, according to IBM.

The materials discovery research to come will use AI technologies to investigate potential new materials for applications like affordable and sustainable energy generation and storage, as well as environmentally-friendly electronics and transportation materials. The sustainability research will focus on solving climate challenges through carbon accounting, capture, utilization and sequestration, according to IBM.

In March, IBM announced a 10-year partnership with the 100-year-old Cleveland Clinic to bolster the Clinic’s research capabilities by integrating a wide range of IBM’s advanced technologies in AI, quantum computing and the cloud. The partnership was fueled by the need for faster life sciences and healthcare research, especially in the wake of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative includes an all-new Discovery Center being created at the Clinic’s campus in Cleveland, Ohio. In addition, IBM will install what it calls its first private-sector, on-premises quantum computing system in the United States at the facility, along with key technologies for AI and cloud computing from IBM’s product lines. And in the future, after IBM has developed a more powerful, more advanced, next generation 1,000+ qubit quantum system in the coming years, the Clinic will get that machine for its research as well.

This article first appeared on sister website EnterpriseAI.news.

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