AI sheds new light on the ‘code of life’


AI Sheds New Light on the ‘Code of Life’

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AI Sheds New Light on the ‘Code of Life’

USC Dornsife researchers employ artificial intelligence to unveil the intricate world of DNA structure and chemistry, enabling unprecedented insights into gene regulation and disease.
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While ChatGPT, Bard and other artificial intelligence tools keep writers, teachers and fans of the Terminatormovie franchise up at night worrying about various apocalyptic scenarios, another use of AI offers more hopeful outcomes.

Researchers at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences are using AI and other computational methods to redefine how scientists view DNA and give a clearer, more all-encompassing perspective on the “code of life.”

The knowledge revealed promises to transform scientific fields ranging from cancer research to drug design to sustainability.

Revealing a deeper complexity
In simplest terms, the genetic code is composed of four letters — A, C, G and T. The letters represent the nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, which are part of the DNA double helix. These four nucleotide letters spell out the genetic code for all living things.

While this simple version of the code has done a serviceable job for decades, it doesn’t begin to fully reveal the complexity of DNA.

“We wanted to find a new way of encoding DNA that goes beyond the linear letter code,” said Remo Rohs, chair of the Department of Quantitative and Computational Biology at USC Dornsife. He and his colleagues published significant research, which used large-scale experimental data, earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also published similar experimental data for a family of cancer-related proteins called forkhead box transcription factors in Nucleic Acids Research last week.

These and other research advances place the department among those at the forefront of the new USC Frontiers of Computing initiative, which aims to spur research and innovation in advanced computing technologies such as AI and machine learning, data science, blockchain and quantum information.

Researchers see DNA as more than a simple code
Rohs, professor of quantitative and computational biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy and computer science, and his team are looking to develop a more realistic and wholistic definition of the genetic code that includes “all structural variations and chemical modifications that we know of now or that could be discovered in the future,” he said.

These chemical modifications and structural variations that Rohs mentions range from small changes to the four nucleotides all the way up to major alterations that affect how DNA coils around itself and other molecules such as proteins.

These changes can affect which genes are active and which are dormant by allowing or blocking proteins from interacting with the DNA or reading the code.

Rohs’ approach replaces the simple four-letter sequence with one that includes physicochemical groups in the major and minor grooves in the DNA double-helix.

So, what does that mean?

The DNA double-helix forms a twisted ladder shape. By virtue of the ladder’s twist, it has a wider, major groove and a narrower, minor groove. Depending on their size and shape, cellular molecules may have an easier time interacting with the DNA through one groove versus the other.

“Physicochemical” refers to both physical and chemical properties. Rohs’ method takes into account the various bumps and protrusions of the nucleotides and other DNA components and their physical accessibility within the two grooves. It also incorporates how the DNA components might react chemically with proteins. Taken together, this gives a clearer picture of how the cell’s machinery interacts with and interprets the genetic code.

For instance, a protein might normally bind to a section of DNA coded as AGTCATGGA, but if that section is tucked away in the minor groove, the protein might not be able to get close enough to bind. Or, if the protein and coded section have a strong chemical attraction, even if the coded section is tucked in tight, the protein might still be able to interact, but to a lesser degree.

Greater insights on DNA using AI
This is where Rohs’ team introduces AI, which learns a DNA-binding protein’s preference for certain chemical groups at specific physical locations in each groove of the DNA.

By accounting for these nuances, Rohs and his team reveal a more complete picture of what happens with DNA in living cells, one that extends far beyond the simple, linear, four-letter code. This, says Soheil Shams, chief information officer emeritus of biotechnology company Bionano Genomics Inc., is key to advancing computational research on the genome.

“One of the most important, yet challenging, steps in many computational biology applications, like machine learning, is how to represent biochemical information so it can be computationally processed,” said Shams, who graduated from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering with a master’s degree in 1986 and a PhD in 1992. “The proposed approach by Dr. Rohs and colleagues is offering a much more complete representation of the DNA sequence that should enable similarly more complete discoveries in interpretation of genetic variants as well as cancer research.”

Rohs’ method would help scientists understand why some genes are only partially active under certain conditions, or why the activity of some genes increases or decreases with age.

And this, Rohs says, opens doors for a range of beneficial research avenues.

“Using AI methods on a genome with chemical modifications and structural modifications will allow its applications in cancer and aging research, agricultural research, synthetic biology, chemical engineering, and drug design,” he said. “For example, certain types of cancers involve chemical modifications of DNA, aging correlates with the level of DNA methylation, and plant genomes undergo extensive chemical modifications compared to the genomes of other organisms.”

For their next steps, Rohs says, the researchers want to apply their work to DNA-binding proteins that control gene activity and predict how altering nucleotides — or substituting new, synthetic nucleotides — affects those proteins’ function.

“We want to predict binding preferences of gene regulatory proteins, called transcription factors, to DNA with chemically modified nucleotides and synthetic base pairs to improve binding characteristics and develop drugs that improve human health and disease,” he said.

Rohs’ work on the cutting edge of computational biology using AI could hold benefits for humanity that bots like ChatGPT could only dream of.

About the studies
The paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was led by Postdoctoral Associate Tsu-Pei Chiu and co-authored by former graduate student Satyanarayan Rao.

The paper published in Nucleic Acids Research was led by postdoctoral associate Brendon Cooper and co-authored by former postdoctoral associate Ana Carolina Dantas Machado, lab technician Yan Gan, and professor of biological sciences Oscar Aparicio.

The experimental project was part of the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience. Both studies were supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Human Frontier Science Program.

More about research undertaken in Rohs’ lab is available at

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Information Sciences Institute leads initiative to increase bandwidth availability around the nation

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ISI leads an initiative in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF), Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the University of Utah (UoU) to expand spectrum access across the nation
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As the world experiences unprecedented waves of technological innovation, communication needs are multiplying. Between our smartphones, tablets, computers, and even smartwatches, it’s becoming harder for wireless communication services to meet the ever-increasing demand.

Each new development requires more of a limited resource that makes communicating over airways possible, known as the electromagnetic spectrum. The more we innovate, the more spectrum access, or bandwidth, we need.

Scientists envision a future where we communicate through virtual reality or avatars, which would-you guessed it-require even more bandwidth to function.

Here’s the kicker-these wireless communication services are also competing with scientific activities, such as radio astronomy and climate research, for spectrum access. Right now, there’s simply not enough to go around.

Limited spectrum availability is quite literally preventing advancements in science and the development of faster communications for society as a whole.

We need a solution, and we need it fast.

USC Viterbi Information Sciences Institute (ISI)’s Alefiya Hussain, Idaho National Laboratory (INL)’s Arupjyoti Bhuyan, and Robert Ricci of The University of Utah (UoU), are collaborating on a proposal known as Advanced Spectrum Initiative for Research and Experimentation (ASPIRE).

ASPIRE seeks to create this bandwidth availability through a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) known as Spectrum Innovation Initiative: National Radio Dynamic Zones (SII-NRDZ). The goal of SII-NRDZ is to address these issues through dynamic spectrum sharing.

The Project
The SII-NRDZ program supports promising project proposals from spectrum sharing researchers with funding. ASPIRE received an Engineering and Execution Lead award from NSF and subsequently launched just a few months ago in January.

The project is centered around radio dynamic zones: geographically bounded areas that are able to autonomously regulate and control electromagnetic energy entering or leaving the parameters.

Alefiya Hussain, lead researcher at ISI, said the plan is to use designated radio dynamic zones as testing sites to experiment with dynamic spectrum sharing through field trials, and look for ways that “multiple entities can harmoniously coexist.” In other words the team is finding new ways where the needs of commercial and scientific groups can be met at the same time.

“The radio dynamic zone is creating essentially these experimentation spaces for testbeds that allows us to investigate what is a good combination of frequency multiplexing or time-based multiplexing within the spectrum space to be able to effectively use it,” she said.

The Current Method
The United States has tackled the management of spectrum access through the creation of an allocation chart that segments off, in color codes, which frequencies belong to each service. It worked for decades, but now that we’re using up all of the spectrum, smoothing out inefficiencies in the chart is critical to opening up more access.

For example, with the chart an individual service can only operate in its denoted spot, which Hussain said can be wasteful because spectrum access that is available is often left unused.

“Traditionally, one entity was given that spectrum, and only they used it. There were many times when they didn’t use it, but since nobody else was allowed to use it, it goes wasted with this sort of fixed allocation mechanism,” she explained.

The goal, she said, is to have a more “dynamic, flexible allocation” so that one day, the chart can be replaced by a self-regulating radio dynamic zone that both allocates spectrum access more efficiently and redistributes it to meet immediate needs.

The United States currently has a National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) in Virginia where radio astronomy takes place.This protects experimental activities that need to pick up tiny astronomy signals from interference. Hussain said the NRQZ is basically a “radio vacuum” where the use of any sort of wireless device-through phones, bluetooth, WiFi, and other means-is banned.

The NRQZ creates space for passive experimentation, whereas the NRDZ would allow for active experimentation.

Think about it this way: you’re in a room with a large group of people talking loudly among themselves. The NRQZ scenario involves silencing everybody nearby so you are able to hear conversations far away. Alternatively, the second scenario (NRDZ) is if you were able to listen to every conversation that is occurring by sharing space effectively-so that everyone can talk at the right time.

The Vision: A National Radio Dynamic Zone
After experimenting with regional field trials and finding out what works and what doesn’t, the big picture objective is to take the information gathered from rigorous testing to create a permanent, national experimentation facility, somewhere in the United States.

The NRDZ would tackle coexistence and maximize utility through dynamic spectrum sharing, while also opening up a new avenue to support the next generation of spectrum science through active experimentation.

The average person would see an improvement in the speed and communication abilities of their devices while the scientific community would gain bandwidth for their cutting edge projects. It’s a win-win.

The new science made possible with the spectrum includes radio astronomy and remote sensing, which Hussain said will involve advancements in environmental sciences, such as climate monitoring in urban areas that could help scientists “observe phenomena they had not observed before.”

Hussain noted that the NRDZ aims to provide “larger protections for next generation telescopes” that are being built currently and going to be deployed in the future. These telescopes are highly sensitive and necessitate this spectrum innovation.

Green Lights Ahead
The project is still in its early stages. In fact, the team is currently in Phase I-designing field trials. Phase II involves actually conducting the trials in regional radio dynamic zones.

The spectrum allocation chart, although it worked great for the last 20 years, is no longer able to meet society’s wireless communication demands. We are in urgent need of a new, more effective method of spectrum management, and the national radio dynamic zone could be just what the doctor ordered.

The task ahead is not an easy feat, but the implications have the potential to transform spectrum solutions for the better. Hussain said the project will “require not only technological support but also legislative support to include breakthroughs in economic, social, and behavioral sciences as well.”

It looks like in this case Plato might have been right-necessity is in fact the mother of invention. Society needs better spectrum sharing ability-ASPIRE is setting out to create it.

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AI helps place drones in remote areas for faster emergency response

For residents of rural and underserved areas, access to emergency medical care can be a matter of life and death. With limited access to health care services and long ambulance wait times due to distance, these communities face challenges that can significantly affect their health and well-being. In the case of cardiac arrest, when every minute counts, finding solutions to improve response times is critical to saving lives.

USC researchers are exploring the use of AI-powered decision-making to deploy life-saving equipment in data-scarce settings like rural neighborhoods to enable faster emergency response times, improve the design of emergency response systems and potentially save lives. Results from a recent study show the potential for AI to help emergency responders make informed and efficient decisions in settings where data is limited.

The study, published in the journal Operations Research, focuses on developing a new method for using data to choose between candidate ways to design a system. To demonstrate their method, the researchers examined a case study involving a Toronto-based pilot program that deploys drones in conjunction with ambulances to respond to calls about cardiac arrest events.

“Our methods have the potential to revolutionize the way we design and optimize systems in data-scarce settings that extend beyond emergency response. It can help us make more informed and efficient decisions across a range of fields where data is limited,” said corresponding author Michael Huang, a doctoral candidate in the Data Science and Operations department at the USC Marshall School of Business.

No data, no problem: AI-driven methods fill the gaps

When a bystander calls in to report someone near them is experiencing cardiac arrest, emergency responders in the Toronto pilot program have two options: They can either send an ambulance, or they can send an ambulance and deploy a drone with an automated external defibrillator (AED) attached. The AED is a small device that bystanders can use — with no medical training — to attach to the patient and restart their heart before the ambulance arrives. The drone’s ability to get to the patient faster than the ambulance can significantly improve their chances of survival.

This raises key questions about where to place drone depots and how to determine the appropriate response to an emergency situation.

“We initially thought that the main question was where to deploy the drone, but in reality, the first-order question is where to put the drone depots,” said Vishal Gupta, an associate professor of data sciences and operations at USC Marshall.

Ambulances rarely go to these remote locations, so we don’t have a lot of data on travel times.

Vishal Gupta, USC Marshall

“We want to strategically place them in locations that are both close to where cardiac arrests occur, but also in areas that are difficult to reach by ambulance. The challenge here is that data on ambulance travel times to remote locations is scarce, making it difficult to estimate. Ambulances rarely go to these remote locations, so we don’t have a lot of data on travel times,” said Gupta, who also holds a courtesy appointment in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

The researchers found that for cardiac arrest events in rural areas where ambulance wait times are longer than in urban areas and where there is limited data, their method leads to significantly more effective decisions on when to dispatch the drone and where to place depots compared to conventional approaches.

The AI-driven methodology can be applied to various fields and areas of public policy, including where to place speed bumps to reduce traffic fatalities or the most efficient location for power lines, where the true construction costs are often unknown and estimates are made based on rough figures.

“We often hear about big data and its potential, but in many cases, data is still scarce, especially in settings where data collection is expensive or limited by privacy concerns,” Gupta said. “There are also cases where collection events are rare, which can make it challenging to design systems and make informed decisions. With AI tools, we can address these challenges and make better decisions even in data-limited settings.”

About the study: Paat Rusmevichientong, the Justin Dart Professor of Operations Management and a professor of data sciences and operations at USC Marshall, served as co-author of the study.

The study was partially funded by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CMMI-1661732. All three authors thank Justin J. Boutilier and Timothy C.Y. Chan of the University of Toronto for sharing simulation results and details pertaining to their 2019 paper, “Response time optimization for drone-delivered automated external defibrillators.”

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Can AI teach your child perseverance?

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Can AI Teach Your Child Perseverance?
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A team of researchers that includes Emmanuel Johnson, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI), has been awarded a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund a new artificial intelligence institute focused on AI in education.

Johnson, who is also a USC Viterbi Computer Science alumni and did his PhD at USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), is part of a multidisciplinary team across four universities that is launching the INVITE Institute (INclusive and innoVative Intelligent Technologies for Education). INVITE is centered at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and will “invent, investigate, and deploy novel AI-augmented learning technologies and foundational AI techniques to address the needs of learners who are underserved and underrepresented in STEM.”

INVITE seeks to fundamentally change how educational technologies interact with learners by developing AI techniques to track and promote “noncognitive” skills that contribute to academic success. It is led by H. Chad Lane, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Computer Science at UIUC who was previously the Director of Learning Sciences Research at ICT.

More Than Just Times Tables
The team is looking at how to build AI systems that can better serve young learners in K-12.

“We want to explore how AI can improve learning, not only focusing on the technical aspects, but also the social-emotional aspects of learning,” said Johnson, whose research focuses on using AI to teach interpersonal skills, such as negotiation and more recently, collaboration.

“A lot of my work has been in using AI to support training in things outside of technical skills and developing the student holistically,” he continued.

Johnson brings with him an expertise in the social aspects of the learning environment. For example, “students’ views of themselves, their perseverance, or how they interact with the learning material.”

How do you teach a child something like perseverance? Just like anything else: you bring in a tutor.

Your Child’s New Tutor: The Pedagogical Agent
Johnson has extensive experience in building pedagogical agents, the physical embodiment of the AI system that interacts with the student. In the real world, a student might engage with material, but have a human tutor sitting next to them engaging with them as they do so.

Johnson explained how tutoring is done using AI.

“Think of a system where you’re completing math questions. The system has a model of how you learn so it’s able to adapt the learning based on your performance. For example, if you got five of the 10 questions on addition wrong, then it says, ‘you know what, you actually might need more help on addition, we need to give you more information.'”

Without a pedagogical agent, a tutoring system like this would simply provide more addition information.

But, Johnson said, “We can put a physical embodiment to this agent, so you have a thing that talks to you, engages with you. It might even try to motivate you.” This is a pedagogical agent.

Johnson is certainly excited to have been invited to the INVITE team. “As I’m just starting out my career, this opportunity is amazing. I’m sitting at the table helping decide how AI and education is going to look 20 to 30 years from now.”

He continued, “By being part of a big institute grant, I get to meet and work with a lot of my idols; people I look up to in the field.”

The team pulls experts from many fields, and includes researchers in AI, learning sciences, psychology, DEI, and more, coming from five major institutions.

Along with Johnson of USC, the team is made up of researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Florida, Temple University, and ETS, the world’s largest private nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization. Researchers from Wright State University, University of Michigan and University of Oregon are also involved as partners.

National AI Research Institutes
The five-year grant is part of an NSF program – the National AI Research Institutes – which supports institutes focused on long-term, high-reward AI research. INVITE is one of seven new NSF-led AI Research Institutes. For more information about INVITE and the rest of the funded institutes, please see the UIUC press release and the NSF press release.

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USC announces $1 billion-plus initiative for computing including AI, ethics and quantum computing

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EMBARGO: Thursday, May 4, 2023 at 11 am PT

KEYWORDS: artificial intelligence, quantum, generative AI, AI, human-centric technology, human-centric tech, future workforce, workforce of the future, blockchain, ethical AI, tech workforce

HED: USC launches $1B-plus initiative for computing including advanced computation, quantum computing, AI and ethics
DEK: The initiative includes opening a new School of Advanced Computing, enhancing educational opportunities in ethical computing for students across the university, advancing new research and expanding USC’s footprint in Silicon Beach, part of L.A. County’s growing tech corridor

By Paul McQuiston

USC President Carol L. Folt launched a $1 billion-plus initiative to expand and infuse advanced computing throughout the university’s programs and curriculum with ethics at its core. Grounded in responsible technology, USC will accelerate innovation with novel and robust educational and research opportunities across all disciplines.


“I want every student who comes through our programs, whether they are in science, business, the humanities or the arts, to have a solid grounding in technology and the ethics of the work that they do,” Folt said. “We will integrate digital literacy across disciplines to create responsible leaders for the workforce of the future.”

The Frontiers of Computing initiative is a major step forward on one of Folt’s moonshots for the university. A $260 million gift to USC jumpstarted the effort in 2019 when Folt said the university would advance and expand computing research and education across the university in a strategic and thoughtful way.

Under USC Frontiers of Computing, USC unites its multiple strengths in computer science and advanced computing. The initiative includes a new School of Advanced Computing that will serve as a nexus and incubator for advanced computation projects for students and faculty. It will spur research and innovation in advanced computing technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, data science, blockchain and quantum information.

All of this will be guided by ethics and responsibility. USC has long been a leader in education, research and development that shape the formation of best practices for the uses of technology. The university will continue to acknowledge, anticipate and navigate the potentially adverse impacts of technology.

Through USC Frontiers of Computing, USC will prepare students for a more tech-intensive world of work, spark new technological advances to improve people’s lives and shape responsible policy.

Because every discipline today requires a level of digital fluency, students in all majors will receive training in data analytics and coding skills, among other topics. In addition, students will be provided with experiential learning opportunities with industry partners, particularly in Silicon Beach. Already, USC is among the largest providers of tech talent in the U.S. and confers the most computer science degrees among private research institutions.

The initiative will reach into all disciplines, as well, including the creative arts, gaming, the humanities and health sciences.

USC will add to its brain trust a roster of world-class scientists with a track record of entrepreneurship, mentorship and groundbreaking research collaboration with colleagues across the spectrum of disciplines.

The initiative is expected to increase the university’s economic value to the region (already estimated at $8 billion in a 2017 analysis) and the globe. The initiative will result in thousands more students earning computer science degrees to bring their technological talents to jobs across multiple professions worldwide.

USC Frontiers of Computing is an investment in education, research and the Southern California economy — in particular, Silicon Beach, an area encompassing Marina del Rey, currently the locus of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute, and Playa del Rey, home of the USC Viterbi’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

The initiative will focus on three key areas of technology: advancing AI and machine learning software; improving hardware efficiency and scalability; and, in this era of big data, expanding quantum computing.

“This endeavor is a tremendous opportunity to apply new computing tools to accelerate and expand the impact of scientific discovery,” said Ishwar K. Puri, USC senior vice president for research and innovation. “It is not only the ability to solve problems that sets this apart, but the speed with which it can be done. That’s paramount because such problems as climate change jeopardize our planet and we must begin to address this now to ensure a continuing and, we hope, improving quality of life.”

Ultimately, the university’s endeavor to launch a renaissance in computing could propel greater investment, growth and innovation across the Southern California region, the state and the world.

“The world needs more and better tech talent,” said Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, which will oversee the new school. “The new School of Advanced Computing will tackle this challenge by developing reimagined engineering curricula to keep up with the fast-changing pace of technology.”

A legacy of innovation

For more than 50 years, USC has pioneered breakthroughs in computer science, AI, machine learning and quantum computing, including the creation of the domain name system (e.g., .com, .net, .edu), natural language processing that preceded current large language models, the first quantum computing system at a university and socially assistive robots.

USC Frontiers of Computing builds upon the university’s strong foundation of entrepreneurship and computing innovations, such as USC Viterbi’s ISI, which helped design, develop and run the early internet, to ICT, which pioneered new advances in virtual reality.

In addition, quantum computing holds the promise of processing vast, massive amounts of data quickly. Home of the USC-Lockheed Martin Quantum Computing Center, USC was the first university in the world and the only university in the United States to host and operate a commercial quantum computing system.

The center’s opening in 2011 ushered in a wave of new quantum computing centers, followed by Google and NASA in 2013.

“I am particularly excited about the prospect of expanding upon USC’s long history of leadership in quantum computing,” said Amber D. Miller, dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, which oversees quantum information science. “The potential is tremendous not only for great progress in applications such as cryptography and seismic simulations, but also for foundational breakthroughs in research areas like black holes, computational biology and quantum materials.”

A pivotal moment

In 2019, USC received a $260 million gift granted by the Lord Foundation of California. The new USC School of Advanced Computing is the foundation, as well as a part of USC Viterbi. It will feature programs in information technology, data sciences and interdisciplinary efforts in advanced computing across all USC Viterbi academic departments.

The school will be headquartered at the Dr. Allen and Charlotte Ginsburg Human-Centered Computation Hall. The seven-story, 116,000-square-foot hall, now under construction, features interactive spaces and laboratories.

By spring next year, the ranks of faculty at the new school will begin to expand. Thirty new faculty members will be appointed in priority areas by 2025; another 60 will have been recruited by 2030. While enhancing the educational and research opportunities attractive to undergraduate and graduate students, the addition of faculty will expand USC’s portfolio of intellectual property and widen its network of collaborators across academia and industry.

“The business opportunities and societal impact of the ever-more-rapid computing revolution are immense, and USC is at the forefront of both,” said Geoffrey Garrett, dean of the USC Marshall School of Business. “With an entire academic department dedicated to data science, and with technically skilled faculty placed throughout all our business programs, we are well-placed not only to focus on the cutting-edge business applications of technologies like AI and blockchain, but also to understand and shape their consequences for society.”

The USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation is another example of how faculty and students are working across disciplines to analyze societal challenges and create humane solutions to complex issues. The USC Iovine and Young Academy provides a learning framework that is centered on the intersection of human-centered technology, design, entrepreneurship and communication.

Innovation for the public good

USC has been rising in the ranks for federal financing of computing research (it is now fourth with $110 million in federal funds, according to the National Science Foundation). It also leads in the number of students who graduate with computer science degrees.

Each year, USC confers an estimated 1,500 computer science degrees — the most of any private research institution, based on a comparison of data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The School of Advanced Computing will position the university to be the leading source of tech talent on the West Coast. Within the next decade, more than 28,000 USC students will graduate with computing-related proficiency across different disciplines and degrees, preparing them for tech-forward professions of the future, university projections show.

The economic footprint of USC Frontiers of Computing will scale across the Southern California region — and beyond — as more faculty join USC and new graduates move into jobs and launch new ventures or enterprises. USC and its collaborators in Silicon Beach will stimulate a culture of invention to spark job creation, economic growth and the development of deep-tech products and services that will improve people’s lives.

In 2021, NSF awarded $15 million to USC Viterbi to lead the startup ecosystem, the I-Corps Hub: West Region, in the Western states with collaborators such as UCLA and California Institute of Technology. The hub is meant to accelerate technology commercialization, quickly moving breakthrough discoveries from the lab to the marketplace.

USC Frontiers of Computing will incorporate the recently announced USC Center for Generative AI and Society to seed research, convene experts and expand the university’s national leadership in computing with a special focus on the ethical use and innovation of generative AI.

In addition, Yortsos affirms that ethics and communication skills to ensure trustworthy technologies will be an important part of a reimagined USC curriculum. “We aim to educate trustworthy engineers and professionals, with outstanding technical competence and outstanding technical character. Together, the two create trust, sorely missing in today’s world. Frontiers of Computing must also speak to this.”

The computer science department in USC Viterbi will be named the Thomas Lord Department of Computer Science to honor the donor, philanthropist, engineer and inventor who founded the Lord Foundation. USC will also endow a chair in the name of the late Donald Alstadt, the former Lord Corporation president and director of the Lord Foundation of California, who was instrumental in bringing the Lord Foundation to USC. The university plans to hold an event to celebrate these milestones in the fall.

“We are extremely pleased to see how USC is expanding on its history of innovation and creativity to extend Thomas Lord’s legacy for future generations,” said Mickey Pohl, [TITLE TK] “The Frontiers of Computing initiative is an expansive and bold move that will enhance education and research in advanced computing with responsibility and integrity. It also fits so closely with the vision of Thomas Lord, and that of his friend and successor as Lord Foundation CEO Donald M. Alstadt, for how institutions like USC could advance the public good.”

A hub for new talent, turbocharged innovation

Los Angeles is home to one of the most dynamic tech ecosystems in the U.S. It has one of the most diverse, innovative and creative populations found anywhere, positioning Southern California to become a turbocharged innovation incubator.

Anchored by its two research powerhouses — ISI and ICT — Silicon Beach will be an expanded hub for applied research and innovation. It will firmly connect USC with the Westside tech corridor that includes campuses for Google, Amazon, SpaceX and other leading technology firms.

The initiative will expand on USC’s deep commitment to community engagement. The university plans to create a new president’s scholars program that will help community college students prepare and successfully transfer into four-year degree programs at USC to prepare for careers in technology. USC will also provide computing and coding camps for K-12 schools and community college students in Silicon Beach, and the university will continue to partner directly with the creative arts community.

USC students and faculty will forge new partnerships that will prepare them for professional and academic advancement in all fields.


“Our students and faculty have proven time again that through innovation, invention and collaboration, they are motivated to tackle the biggest challenges of our time,” Folt said. “USC was founded on an arc of purpose that strives to build a better, more equitable and ethical future for generations to come.”

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USC Viterbi team to participate in multi-university study on quantum computing


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Daniel Lidar to Lead MURI on Quantum Computing Research

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Daniel Lidar to Lead MURI on Quantum Computing Research
The Department of Defense Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative Award will allow Daniel Lidar’s team to investigate techniques that may unlock quantum computing’s full potential.
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A research team led by Daniel Lidar, the holder of the Viterbi Professorship of Engineering and Professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been named as the recipient of a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) Award. These highly competitive and sought-after grants support basic research projects in areas of strategic importance to the Department of Defense. Lidar’s team will receive a maximum of $6.25 million over five years.

Lidar, who is the Director of the USC Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology, will be collaborating with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Iowa State University — along with Dr. Robert Kosut, a quantum control expert at the company SC Solutions, and a separately funded team based in Australia led by Professor Kavan Modi — to investigate quantum error correction and quantum control. These techniques hold the promise of facilitating the development of quantum computers that can be exponentially faster than the best state-of-the-art classical computers for certain problems.

“Quantum computers have the potential to solve problems that are currently impossible for classical computers, like simulating complex chemical reactions or breaking modern cryptographic codes,” said Lidar. “However, one major challenge in building a practical quantum computer is dealing with errors.”

By researching improvements in quantum error correction and quantum control, Lidar and his team aim to overcome the challenges posed by errors and the delicate nature of quantum systems.

Minimizing errors

Errors in quantum computing can arise from various sources, such as the environment (heat, radiation or magnetic fields) or imperfections in the hardware. These errors can cause qubits — which are the fundamental units of information in quantum computing — to lose their fragile quantum state or introduce unwanted changes, potentially ruining the computation. That’s where quantum error correction comes in.

One widely used method is the error-correcting code approach, which involves encoding the information of a single qubit across multiple “physical” qubits. These extra qubits essentially provide redundancy so that if an error occurs, it can be detected and corrected without losing the original information.

“Imagine a game of ‘telephone,’ where a message is passed down a line of people,” says Lidar. “If each person only whispers to the next one, errors can easily creep in. But if everyone repeats the message to multiple neighbors who share the messages they received, it becomes easier to identify and correct any mistakes. Quantum error correction works in a similar way, but with qubits and quantum correlations called entanglement instead of correlated people.”

Ensuring accuracy

Lidar’s team will be looking at how quantum error correction intersects with quantum control, which involves manipulating quantum systems to perform specific tasks or computations. Quantum control focuses on the precise control of qubits to ensure that the desired quantum operations are executed with high accuracy.

“The need for quantum control arises because it’s crucial to accurately perform the quantum operations while minimizing errors and maintaining the quibits’ coherence, which is the ability to maintain their quantum state,” said Lidar.

Achieving precise quantum control is challenging because quantum systems are so prone to errors. Lidar and his team will be exploring how to improve the effectiveness of quantum control approaches, including open-loop and closed-loop control, in dealing with unexpected errors.

Leading the charge

This is the second MURI Award team that Lidar will be leading. The current project will build on results from the quantum computing research he spearheaded with a MURI Award in 2011.

Lidar, who has also been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his groundbreaking work in quantum computing, notes that his research group at USC Viterbi has a longstanding collaboration with the researchers at both MIT and Iowa State University, dating back to the previous MURI Award and even earlier in the case of MIT.

“It’s incredibly exciting to have our team selected for this award,” said Lidar. “We’ve assembled some of the top people globally working at the intersection of quantum error correction and quantum control and worked long and hard to put together a competitive proposal. We’re all very gratified that our ideas were selected for funding, and we’re eager to start work on them as a team.”

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Exploring the future of intellectual property in an AI world


Kaitlyn McQuown
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Exploring the future of intellectual property in an AI world
Leading voices address changes to the IP industry at the 2023 Intellectual Property Institute
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Experts and academics discussed the future of the intellectual property law industry in light of emerging artificial intelligence technology, landmark cases and other developments at the 2023 Intellectual Property Institute, hosted by USC Gould School of Law in March.

The two-day continuing legal education conference, titled “The Pathways to Clear IP Solutions,” was held March 20-21 at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica as well as online for remote attendees.

Featured speakers included Jeremy Bash, founder and managing director of Beacon Global Strategies LLC, and dozens of academics, IP lawyers and other professionals.

In his keynote presentation, Bash emphasized the vital role of intellectual property in a strong democracy.

“Intellectual property — the ability to protect that which we create — represents, in my view, the foundation of America’s strength,” he said. “Without IP rights, there would be no creation. Without creation, there be no economic power of the United States. Without any economic power of the United States, there would be no diplomatic power, no military power.”

The first day of the institute began with workshop sessions covering patent damages, reasonable royalties and monetary remedies.

The annual Julie H. Yi Diversity Forum kicked off the second day of the institute with experts in various sectors offering strategies to identify and address implicit and explicit biases against individuals and entities in the courtroom and other litigation settings.

Other morning sessions covered trends in IP litigation, led by federal judges, and how intellectual property law will adapt to artificial intelligence.

In a lively discussion about how to regulate intellectual property produced by or with the help of machines, Professor Ryan Abbott (University of Surrey School of Law; partner, Brown, Neri, Smith & Khan; neutral, JAMS) raised the question of authorship.

“The idea of drawing a line is challenging. [Technology] can do some pretty advanced things in terms of altering images in ways that would be hard for me to claim I really had much to do with,” said Abbott. “How we made the work shouldn’t matter the way we also think how we come up with an invention shouldn’t matter in patent law.”

Throughout the afternoon, attendees chose between concurrent breakout sessions delving into copyright, patent and trademark law, including discussions on recent legislation, developments in life sciences cases, standard essential patents licensing and the Trademark Modernization Act.

The event closed with the annual “The IP Year in Review: Patent, Trademark and Right of Publicity, and Copyright,” presented by professors Shyamkrishna Balganesh (Columbia Law School), Nicole Morris (Emory School of Law) and Jennifer E Rothman (Pennsylvania Carey Law School), who discussed the most significant cases in each segment of IP law in the past year.

The Intellectual Property Institute is the leading conference hosted by a top rated law school in Southern California, and attracts industry experts from local areas and beyond to address emerging issues shaping the ever-evolving intellectual property landscape.

USC Gould School of Law offers continuing legal education opportunities for professionals who want to learn and network with leading experts in their industries. A fixture of the Los Angeles legal community since 1948, USC Gould Continuing Legal Education hosts six annual conferences for professionals at every level to learn from, and network with, the biggest players in entertainment, estate planning, business, tax and intellectual property. To learn more, visit or subscribe at – and follow on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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In a world where AI’s impact is growing, exactly what is consciousness?


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What Is Consciousness?

As artificial intelligence seems to be veering close to self-awareness and we reclassify some animals as “sentient,” USC Dornsife scholars discuss what it means to be conscious.
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Rumors of artificial intelligence becoming sentient abound. In July of 2022, a Google engineer claimed that an AI chatbot he was working with had become self-aware. The same AI recently passed the Turing Test, once considered the gold standard for determining if something was human.

Uncertainty about consciousness also extends into the animal kingdom. The U.K. recently declared that octopuses, lobsters and crabs were sentient. Dolphins have demonstrated self-awareness. This is all complicated by the fact that we still don’t exactly know what human consciousness is. Science still can’t explain it.

A recent Dornsife Dialogues panel brought together two scholars from disparate departments at the College to discuss this enduring enigma and answer timely questions.

How do you define consciousness?

“Once we get into the nitty gritty of consciousness from a psychological or neuroscientific point, it has to do with experience. You have the experience of your life going on in your organism and the thoughts that are in your mind, and that experience has a perspective of the self,” explains Antonio Damasio, University Professor, professor of psychology, philosophy and neurology, and David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience. “You don’t create consciousness with the brain alone. You create consciousness with a partnership between the brain, the nervous system and the rest of the living organism.”

Are there levels of consciousness? And if so, is human consciousness somehow superior to that of other species?

“I’m always worried about putting things in a direct hierarchy,” says Tok Thompson, professor (teaching) of anthropology. “It’s easy to look around and be impressed by what humans have managed to do. We have iPhones, computers and Zoom, but that’s not really what makes us, us. We spent most of our time as hunter gatherers. There are plenty of hunters and gatherers still out there, and they’re fully as human as I am.

[In terms of levels of consciousness] I would add on the purposeful ones, the altered states of consciousness that people seek. We find this in many, many societies around the world. Shamanism is built on this. There’s a new study out that says gorillas like to spin themselves around to get dizzy, to experience that altered state of consciousness. So, we may not be alone.”

How do we really know if something is conscious?

“For me, the test always starts with feelings. Static feelings are the inaugural events of consciousness,” says Damasio. “They are the test for whether some creature or organism is conscious or not. If that organism has a feeling, like comfort or discomfort, in a palpable way, then it’s conscious. If there is no indication that there is that element of potential suffering or potential joy and pleasure, then it’s not conscious.”

Will we one day be able to download our consciousness into a machine to live forever?

“Well, what is this ‘me’?” asks Thompson. “For example, I try to eat probiotic yogurt every day. Studies have shown that these little organisms live in your gut, help calm you down and reduce stress. The days you don’t have it, your stress level goes up. So, ‘me’ includes those little guys in my gut. How could I upload them into the cloud with me? I don’t think we could.”

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