Eller’s Artificial Intelligence Lab Celebrates 30th Anniversary

January 22, 2019

18 PhD alumni of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Eller College of Management returned to the University of Arizona campus on November 2, 2018, to celebrate the Lab’s 30th anniversary with current students, faculty and administrators. Event attendees learned about current AI Lab projects, shared their personal and professional successes, and exchanged favorite stories and memories.

The lab was founded by Hsinchun Chen before “artificial intelligence” was a household phrase. It was the first AI lab in a business school, and it remains the only one in the United States housed in a business school.

While Chen was initially focused on artificial intelligence for information retrieval in a library context, the scope of his work quickly expanded thanks to more than $40 million in research funding from a number of agencies, including more than 50 grants from the National Science Foundation alone.

Other sources of funding include the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine, the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Corporate sponsors have included Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), SiliconGraphics Computer Systems (SGI), 3Com, and AT&T.

Lab personnel have specialized over the years in digital libraries, database integration, collaborative computing, knowledge management, Internet/Intranet technologies, and intelligent information retrieval. By continually expanding the boundaries of their research and pursuing new and emerging areas of science, Lab staff have been able to contribute notable innovations in many arenas of information science, including e-commerce, intelligence and security informatics, terrorism informatics, digital library and digital government, and bio- and medical informatics and smart health.

One of the Lab’s greatest successes grew from Chen’s connection with a student who was also a Tucson Police Department officer. The two wondered if the information retrieval technology they were working on could be applied to law enforcement.

The result was the crime-fighting product COPLINK®, which allows law enforcement agencies to draw information from multiple databases across jurisdictions and identify associations between crimes. Chen commercialized the technology, which was ultimately acquired by IBM in 2011, one of the largest University of Arizona spin-off successes. COPLINK® was licensed by 5000 police departments in all 50 states and 28 NATO countries.

Another Lab milestone was the opening of the Dark Web Research Center in 2009. Funded by a multi-million dollar NSF grant, it is a long-term scientific research program to study and understand international terrorism phenomena through a computational, data-centric approach.

In 2013 the Lab secured $4.2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation for Cybersecurity Scholarship for Service (SFS), also known as AZSecure. The program prepares graduate students for the cybersecurity workforce through coursework and independent studies resulting in a Master's paper or dissertation. Program participants also produce conference presentations and publications and complete summer internships.

Students join the AI Lab to learn technical and research skills, but attendees at the 30th anniversary event talked about other lessons that shaped their careers.

PhD graduate Yilu Zhou (2006), associate professor of Information Systems at Fordham University, credits her time as a research assistant in the AI Lab with shaping her teaching and research philosophy. “It entirely changed my view of what a professor can do and how a professor can inspire students and contribute and impact a field.”

Ahmed Abbasi (PhD 2008), Associate Dean for Analytics Initiatives and director of the Center for Business Analytics at the University of Virginia, talked about the lasting impact of working with “visionary people” in the AI Lab. “One of the most important things I learned here was the importance of focusing on big-picture ideas that are going to have an impact on the world. Being creative, being innovative, thinking outside the box and not being afraid to go after problems that might seem too difficult at first—where there’s a will, there’s a way.” 

Sagar Samtani (PhD 2018), assistant professor in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department at the University of South Florida, is grateful every day for his four years in the AI Lab. “There’s so much preparation I got from Dr. Chen and the entire environment: how to think bigger about research problems, how to execute research problems in a very systematic way, how to form a team, how to have a vision and execute that vision. That’s something I rely on on a day-to-day basis.”