Viterbi School of Engineering Unveiled: A conversation with Prof Gaurav Sukhatme

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) have become transformative forces, reshaping industries worldwide and fostering a heightened demand for professionals proficient in these domains. A comprehensive understanding of the evolving AI career landscape is essential for students, professionals, and educators alike. Viterbi School of Engineering (VSE) at the University of Southern California (USC), is one of the most prestigious private research universities, where the main area of focus of research is on computing, Computer Science involving AI and Machine Learning. In an insightful interview with HT digital, Prof. Gaurav Sukhatme, VSE’s Executive Vice Dean, provided valuable insights into the school’s values, their approach to nurturing talent, and the exciting developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Here are excerpts from that interview:

Viterbi School of Engineering (VSE) at the University of Southern California (USC).(Handout image)

Tell us briefly about Viterbi School of Engineering

More than 100 years old, Viterbi School of Engineering (VSE) at USC, has roughly more than 10,000 students. The school offers broad undergraduate programs in almost every area of Engineering. It has nine academic departments, offering 13 PhD programs, more than 50 master’s programs, and several Bachelor’s programs. The faculty is well-known for their research and students too actively participate in it. VSE is a significant supplier of students to Silicon Valley. The main area of focus of research at VSE is on computing, Computer Science involving AI and Machine Learning. The school is consistently in the top 5 in the US in terms of the volume of research in computing. A large number of Indian students come to Viterbi School of Engineering for graduate programs.

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Considering you’ve been both a student and a faculty at Viterbi, tell us what the school thinks about the Indian students there and what Indian students feel about Vitrebi?

There are close to 2,000 Indian students at Viterbi School of Engineering alone. Indian students have come to Viterbi in large numbers over a long period. It’s a welcoming place for Indian students. Indian students who study at USC have a favorable impression of their studies and life here. Indian students have good network here and they often hear positive things about the school from their seniors. Indian students come here well-prepared, with a strong science and engineering base in India. So the faculty has a positive impression of them.

What are some popular courses at USC Viterbi School of Engineering that Indian students typically pursue?

The degrees currently in high demand include Computer Science, Data Science, Analytics, and Space Science. In Computer Science, students can pursue a master’s degree or opt for specialised programs like AI or Data Science and Machine Learning, which are particularly popular. These degrees offer flexibility with required core courses and a broad range of electives for customization. Importantly, students can change their specialization even after starting the program, providing significant flexibility and relieving the pressure of early commitments. This adaptability has proven advantageous, allowing students to explore and find the right fit for their interests and career goals.

What are some of the exciting career opportunities in the field of Artificial Intelligence technologies and robotics?

Exciting career opportunities in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics are emerging, particularly in flexible manufacturing where advancements enable robots to perform multiple tasks on the assembly line. The intersection of AI and robotics expands beyond mechanical engineering, involving collaboration between computer scientists and designers, resulting in groundbreaking developments. In broader contexts, AI is revolutionizing sectors like medicine, enhancing diagnostic processes with AI-infused technologies. The possibilities are vast, promising entirely new sectors and products. The evolving landscape underscores the interdisciplinary nature of AI and robotics, offering diverse career prospects with significant impacts across industries.

What changes are occurring in the AI landscape, and how is USC Viterbi School of Engineering adapting to these changes?

AI is undergoing democratization, similar to the internet’s evolution in the 1990s. It’s now permeating every industry, making complex technologies more accessible. At USC, we observe a surge in interest not only from Computer Science students but also from various engineering disciplines and liberal arts. Recognizing this shift, we’re establishing a new school of advanced computing to provide modern technology education to all students. Our university, led by the President’s Frontiers of Computing initiative, integrates computing into diverse disciplines. This digital fluency is crucial for today’s interconnected world. The upcoming school aligns with students’ preferences, offering a blend of computing and other disciplines, and faculty members are equally enthusiastic about this transformation. The initiative will bring in around 60 new faculty members, reflecting the significance of computing in diverse research areas. This comprehensive approach ensures that students and faculty alike are well-equipped for the evolving landscape of AI and computing.

What are the promising career opportunities in Artificial Intelligence technologies and robotics?

In robotics, especially in manufacturing, there’s a significant surge of interest. Traditionally, robots were limited to repetitive tasks, but AI is transforming this landscape. The ability to make robots more flexible, handling diverse tasks on a manufacturing line, is a game-changer. For instance, AI-powered perception systems allow robots to adapt to thousands of different objects in varying lighting conditions, making manufacturing processes more versatile. The integration of AI extends beyond manufacturing, impacting sectors like automotive technology and medicine, with the potential for unforeseen developments in the coming decade. The ongoing commoditization of AI technology holds tremendous potential and safeguards its future relevance.

Are there any plans to support or provide scholarships to meritorious Indian students who want to study at Viterbi but can’t afford?

USC’s outreach efforts primarily target K-12 students at a local level in the US, lacking an international scope. Despite this, the university explores the possibility of scaling K-12 outreach. Existing initiatives include the Viterbi-India student exchange program, where engineering students from Indian universities participate in summer projects at USC. The program, offering full scholarships, selects students through a competitive process. While USC actively engages in research collaborations and student exchanges, its focus on K-12 outreach remains a domestic endeavor. The university recognizes the potential for transformative impact by extending these efforts globally and is actively considering scalable strategies for broader educational accessibility.

Do you have plans for collaboration with Indian universities, and is there a possibility of a mixed program where students spend two years in India and one year at Viterbi for a joint degree?

Yes, we already have collaborations with Indian universities, often involving individual professors pursuing joint projects. While we haven’t designed a specific two-year India, one-year Viterbi degree, we are working on a collaborative program. We’re also excited about iPodia, a unique program where students from USC and other universities worldwide attend virtual classrooms together, working on joint projects. It enhances global perspectives, preparing students for international collaborations in their future careers.

At the Viterbi School of Engineering, given the importance of research for growth and development, could you share insights into the interdisciplinary research happening? Specifically, how are different disciplines collaborating to address real-life challenges, such as air pollution?

Certainly. At Viterbi, we emphasize “Engineering Plus,” where faculty engage in fundamental engineering research with specific goals related to sustainability. For instance, we have projects focusing on energy transition technologies, green technologies, and solar cell efficiency. In the realm of AI and Machine Learning, faculty work on imaging for health applications and building responsible, secure AI models. Our Center for AI and Society fosters interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together AI experts with professionals from social work, among other fields. Students actively participate in these projects, gaining valuable insights beyond traditional coursework. The collaborations extend beyond engineering to sciences, liberal arts, art, social work, and medicine, embodying our commitment to interdisciplinary research for societal impact.

Could you shed light on the placement opportunities for students studying AI or related fields at Viterbi? How does the university support students in launching their careers?

Certainly. Viterbi offers robust career services, particularly strong with West Coast tech companies. Our Career Expo facilitates direct interaction between students and leading tech firms. Many students secure internships during the summer, fostering industrial participation. We also have industry-faculty collaborations, with companies like Amazon funding research centers. The career office assists students in building profiles, developing resumes, and mastering interview etiquette. We have a substantial ecosystem, and our graduates, especially those pursuing careers in Silicon Valley, benefit significantly from this support, with many returning as recruiters.

Amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, did Viterbi School of Engineering experience a decline in student recruitment and enrollments? If so, how is the situation evolving?

Yes, during the peak of the pandemic, many students deferred their enrollments due to the uncertainty. While we initially saw a decrease, a significant number of deferred students have since joined, and the situation is stabilizing. We are witnessing steady growth, especially in computing. Although there were some adjustments, we have largely returned to normal recruitment numbers, overcoming the initial impacts of COVID-19.

Regarding visas, do students who receive scholarships at Viterbi sometimes face challenges in obtaining visas due to quotas or other reasons?

Generally, we haven’t observed issues with students obtaining visas. In cases of delays, we work with students to facilitate their arrival in the following semester. Fortunately, we have not encountered instances where enrolled students failed to secure visas.

How do you see USC’s potential role in advancing global space research, particularly through collaborations with organizations like ISRO, given India’s recent success with Chandrayaan?

USC’s dedicated Department of Astronautics and active student involvement in space science position us well. While we haven’t had formal collaborations with ISRO historically, the dynamic nature of the space sector could lead to interesting future partnerships. With India’s notable achievements, especially Chandrayaan’s moon landing, the space industry appears vibrant and offers exciting collaboration opportunities.

Can you share some notable stories of USC Viterbi alumni who have made a mark in India, considering the significant number of Indian alumni?

Absolutely, we have numerous successful alumni in India. For instance, Manoj Gopalkrishnan, a Computer Science alumnus, stands out as the founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based Algorithmic Biologics. During his time at USC, he delved into DNA computing under the guidance of Turing Award winner Len Adleman, shaping his perspective that “life is matter plus algorithms.”

Additionally, we have Mr. Sandeep Tandon based in Mumbai, a notable USC alumnus whose profile can be explored here: Sandeep Tandon’s LinkedIn Profile.

Other noteworthy alumni include Ashok Das, the Founder of Sun Moksha, Saurah Gupta, the Founder of Urban Piper, and Narendra Narayan, associated with Vinyas Innovative Technologies. These individuals exemplify the global impact of USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s education and the success of our alumni in diverse domains.

What is your perspective on university rankings, and how does Viterbi approach them?

I approach rankings with caution, understanding the limitations of collapsing rich, vibrant universities into a single number. While Viterbi is highly ranked across various lists, our true strength lies in innovative education, cutting-edge research, and ensuring positive outcomes for students. I believe a university’s real value goes beyond a single number, emphasizing individual strengths and contributions over narrow evaluations.

How does the endowment play a role in shaping the future of USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and what possibilities does it open up for long-term planning?

Endowments are crucial for universities as they facilitate long-term planning and development. They provide the flexibility to execute plans over an extended period. While endowments contribute to sustaining the university’s future, immediate needs are also met through active fundraising efforts. For instance, we are currently constructing a state-of-the-art facility for the New School of Advanced Computing at Viterbi, enhancing resources for students and faculty. Endowments enable universities to attract top talent and flourish over time. Additionally, research at Viterbi is supported by substantial grants, approximately $200 million annually, fostering innovation and academic excellence.

Could you share insights into the collaboration between USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, particularly focusing on the USC Games program?

Certainly, the USC Games program is a remarkable collaboration between the School of Cinematic Arts and the School of Engineering at USC. It’s a top-ranked initiative where students can pursue undergraduate or Master’s degrees in game development. The program fosters collaboration between cinematic art and engineering students, jointly creating high-quality games. This innovative approach has resulted in impactful contributions to the gaming industry, with program alumni making significant strides in major game companies. The USC Games program exemplifies the success of interdisciplinary education, producing graduates poised to revolutionize the gaming sector.

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