MSOE’s AI initiative could propel Milwaukee’s tech ecosystem

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When Milwaukee School of Engineering students learned last fall that the school would be getting a supercomputer, the announcement elicited audible gasps of excitement.

News of the addition to their campus – a graphics processing unit-accelerated supercomputer from Silicon Valley tech giant Nvidia Corp. – had the wheels in students’ heads already turning about its computational capabilities.

“This is definitely where the future is heading,” said freshman Jonathan Cobb.

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Dwight Diercks

It was part of a larger announcement, as officials unveiled plans to build a new computational science hall in the center of campus, thanks to a $34 million gift from alumnus Dwight Diercks and his wife, Dian.

Expectations for the new building, which will house the school’s new computer science degree program set to launch this fall, are high. Officials are aiming for nothing short of preeminence among MSOE’s educational peers in the exploding field of artificial intelligence.

More than a standard academic building, the new 64,000-square-foot Dwight and Dian Diercks Computational Science Hall will be outfitted with a state-of-the-art datacenter, the supercomputer that will be used by students and companies, as well as designated office spaces for corporate partnerships. Other features of the new building, which is expected to be completed by fall 2019, include eight classrooms, 13 labs, 28 offices for faculty and staff, a 250-seat auditorium and 18,000 square feet of underground parking.

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The gift also tethers the school to Diercks, the vice president of Santa Clara, California-based AI leader NVIDIA, best known for its GPUs that have pushed advancements in video gaming graphics.

If the project lives up to the hype and indeed positions MSOE as a national leader in AI education, the school will be in the company of larger, well-established tech programs including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley and the University of Washington in Seattle.

The implications for the region, historically clumped in with the rest of the Midwest as a flyover state when it comes to the technology industry, could be significant as it seeks to position itself as a tech hub.

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The future of engineering

Founded in response to the need for engineer and technician training at the turn of the 20th century, MSOE has been producing engineers ever since. Now, Diercks said he wants his alma mater to be ready for the newest wave of technological capabilities that could affect “every engineering job in the next 10 years.”

He would know.

Diercks graduated from MSOE in 1990. After getting his start at Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp., he moved to California for a startup venture before eventually joining the then-nascent Nvidia Corp. as its 22nd employee in 1994.

Diercks took over its six-person software engineering team in 1997, the year the company began seeing significant growth thanks to the release of a new product design of its graphics accelerator chip for PCs. Today, that team has swelled to about 3,600 employees. In total, the company employs some 11,000 workers.

In recent years, Nvidia’s GPUs have fueled advancements in machine learning across various applications, including deep learning, image classification, speech recognition and natural language processing.

Diercks, who has served on MSOE’s board of regents since 2005, wanted to help MSOE transition into the space where his company has found its success, using GPUs for high-performance computing. He knew the school would benefit from having access to a supercomputer, but recognized it wouldn’t be capitalized upon without a computer science degree program in place. Up until now, MSOE has boasted having one of the first software engineering programs in the country, but had no designated computer science degree.

John Walz

MSOE officials, meanwhile, have been interested in adding a computer science program for several years, president John Walz said. Students want it and recruiters of MSOE’s graduates want it, too, he said. Diercks began conversations with the former MSOE president, the late Hermann Viets, and they continued as Walz took the school’s helm in 2016.

What resulted was the $34 million gift to the university for the new hall, and the development of a computer science degree program with a targeted focus on AI.

“Dwight convinced us of the importance of artificial intelligence,” Walz said. “We realized we could make our degree focused on AI – that’s what our niche can be, because there is a huge demand for that.”

A few factors will tee up MSOE’s program for success, Walz said.

For one, AI has long been a topic of research at universities, but only recently have academic institutions begun the shift to hands-on practical instruction in applying AI. There’s an opening for a school to fill that training need.

“What is going to be unique about the MSOE program is we will be focused on educating undergrad students in AI tools, how to use AI and how to apply it,” Walz said. “We’re not the high-level research school. We’re going to get into educating nurses, computer scientists and engineering students on how to use AI.”  

In Nvidia, the school will also have a partnership with an established tech company, with representatives from the company serving on the school’s industrial advisory committee for the program.

And then there’s the supercomputer, a piece of equipment that will be used not only by students, but also by those in industry.

Derek Riley

“It’s a unique resource because most companies that are getting into AI don’t have a resource like this,” said Derek Riley, program director of the new bachelor of science in computer science program. “Most of the time, if you’re going to be doing large data analytics, you’re probably going to be buying time on the cloud and can rent time on a supercomputer. It’s expensive, it takes a lot of expertise, there can be privacy issues and it takes time. So having it here will eliminate those drawbacks.”

Plans for the new building also include designated “corporate partnership” spaces, where companies can rent offices and meeting spaces, collaborate with students and faculty and use the machine. It could look similar to the school’s established arrangement with Milwaukee-based Direct Supply Inc., an emerging giant in the senior living equipment and supplies industry, in which the company occupies two floors of the German-English Academy building at 1020 N. Broadway on the MSOE campus for the company’s technology center. The center opened in 2012 as a way to connect computer engineering and business students with internships and experience working for Direct Supply.

Officials envision the building serving as a bridge to companies, providing new inroads to internships, externships, independent studies and research opportunities.

“Artificial intelligence has the potential to impact a lot of different companies in a lot of different ways,” Riley said. “And our expertise isn’t in necessarily understanding how it can impact their company – it’s in looking at problems and figuring out if there is an AI or machine learning solution to that problem. So hopefully we’re going to be a place where we can answer those questions, or at least dive deeper into them, and give students experiences to solve
real-world problems.”

Building a tech ecosystem

MSOE’s AI push marks one of the latest developments as Milwaukee grows its tech-based ecosystem.

Leaders of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. have spoken with urgency on the need to shake Milwaukee’s old mindsets and rally around building up a tech hub. As its industry undergoes a digital transformation, the 160-year-old insurance and financial services company itself has undergone a shift in recent years – one that has included putting resources into consumer-facing digital tools and creating corporate venture funds to back fintech efforts.

Meanwhile, eclipsing many other regional business developments thanks to its sheer size and scope is the arrival of Foxconn Technology Group in Racine County.

The project has generated high hopes among its supporters, who say the Taiwanese multinational electronics contract manufacturer will transform the region from its manufacturing roots to being on the leading edge of electronics technology.

Once the operation is up and running, the company will begin pumping out liquid-crystal display panels from its Mount Pleasant campus. The manufacturing giant recently announced it plans to invest $342 million over five years to recruit talent and deploy AI at all of its manufacturing sites.

The ecosystem that will develop from Foxconn’s presence, Gov. Scott Walker has said, could have an impact on the state similar to Silicon Valley in California, in which tech workers flock to the West Coast for job opportunities. With an expected 13,000 jobs created at Foxconn alone, along with growing tech-based activity in the region, it’s prompted the question: Where are the workers going to come from?

The resounding answer from regional leaders has been welcoming in-migration from other states and ensuring higher education institutions make a concerted effort to produce ready workers.

Every higher education and workforce training institution in the seven-county region will be called upon to supply tech workers over the next few years, said Julie Huls, a Texas-based economic development consultant who is active in regional discussions around growing southeastern Wisconsin’s tech economy.

“There’s no question that MSOE has an incredible opportunity to fill what we know is an existing talent gap, not to mention they will play an absolutely critical role in filling the future gap that is going to happen as a result of organic growth in innovation-based economic activity in the region, and particularly as it relates to the talent crunch we know the region will feel as a result of Foxconn,” she said.

Karl Gouverneur

Karl Gouverneur, vice president of digital workplace, corporate solutions and head of digital innovation for Northwestern Mutual, said his company has seen the growing tech climate draw in young people who might have previously moved for those opportunities.

“We’ve seen some amount of talent move to the coast because the opportunities here in Milwaukee recently weren’t there,” he said. “But we’re seeing many more stay here now. Some grads from (the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Marquette are participating in startup ecosystems here. These students want to stay in town.”

The state has also thrown some money behind the effort to capture millennial workers. A $1 million marketing campaign developed by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. made its debut in Chicago earlier this year with messages aimed at attracting Midwest millennials to the state. Walker has further proposed deploying a $6.8 million national marketing campaign aimed at attracting millennials, alumni from the state’s universities and veterans to the state.

Companies, meanwhile, will need to grow their own talent by opening up opportunities to two-year degree holders and investing in training, Huls said.

“Industry is going to have to invest a lot more in training employees and getting them ready for success in innovation economies,” she said. “…Twenty or 30 years ago it was commonplace to invest more in employee training, but we’ve been through a couple of recessions and companies have had to cut costs on every level, so it’s understandable that they would let go first of training investments in favor of profitability.

“But I think we’re coming into a new era where it won’t be possible for companies to get through their own digital transformations and for us to be competitive economically as a country unless they begin to reinstate that habit of investing in talent.”

Milwaukee: A tech hub?

Huls, who was president of the Austin Technology Council during the formative years of the city’s development as a tech hub, said there are plenty of lessons to be learned from cities that are farther along in the process.

Milwaukee, she said, finds itself in a similar position to Austin in 2009.

Now seen as a hotbed of tech and startup activity, the metro Austin area – home to about 2 million people, compared to metro Milwaukee’s roughly 1.6 million – was bogged down by “Silicon Valley envy” back then.  

“While it’s natural for any market to have Silicon Valley envy, Austin had it in a big way,” Huls said. “They felt they were being passed over, entrepreneurs were being passed over. ‘Flyover country’ was used regularly in 2009. I think there was a sense that we were missing out on all the great stuff, the great funding opportunities, the talent recruitment opportunities because we were a smaller market in the middle of Texas.”

In 2010, the region made an intentional decision to shake off its low self-esteem and rewrite its narrative, Huls said. It began taking inventory of its talent and available venture capital and promoted those assets more widely. Within a few years, the region had attracted startup activity and large tech brands.

This could be Milwaukee’s future, she said.

Efforts are already underway to take inventory of the region’s graduates, workers and available capital. Once word gets out, she said, the region could be happily surprised with the results.

“There is a tendency for folks to think Milwaukee is not yet a tech hub,” Huls said. “I’m going to argue that when we understand the economic impact that is already happening in Milwaukee, when we put dollars and numbers to those things, you’re going to find Milwaukee is stronger than you think you are.”

MSOE leaders see the school’s AI initiative as building on those assets.

“The Berkeleys, the Stanfords, the MITs – those types of places have head starts on us, and that’s driven by having high-end research schools there,” Walz said. “I think we have potential to get there. Having this type of capability, this type of computer will allow us to move us there. I think there is a desire to be a high-tech city that will keep young people here and keep them from moving to the coasts. That’s what everyone wants to do. I like to think we’re doing our part to help do that.”

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