The billionaire investor is funding AI bootcamps aimed at young people in low-income communities. ‘We don’t recognise how much talent is there.’
By guest author Sara Castellanos, Reporter of the Wall Street Journal
Mark Cuban has committed USD 2 million to expand a program he founded that aims to teach artificial-intelligence skills at no cost to high school students in low-income communities across the country.
The billionaire investor and Dallas Mavericks proprietor, who founded the Mark Cuban Foundation AI Bootcamps program in 2019, says educating young people about artificial intelligence is critical to the country’s global competitiveness. Typically, students in low-income communities don’t have exposure to the technology, he said.
“We don’t recognise how much talent is there,” said Mr. Cuban, who lives in Dallas. “One of my goals is to really go out and find the superstars. There are so many there that are under-appreciated and don’t have access to resources.”
Mr. Cuban’s funding will be spent on resources to educate hundreds of students in AI over the next few years, with the goal of teaching 1,000 students a year from 2023. “We’ll test it, build a curriculum, evolve it and iterate it as many times as we have to. This is important, and I’ll keep funding it,” Mr. Cuban said.
The money will be used to pay for equipment, transportation, food and venues to host lessons when it is safe to be teaching in-person, and to grow the curriculum and attract new corporate partners.
Suresh Kumar, global chief technology officer and chief development officer at Walmart, said Mr. Cuban’s AI mission resonates with him. “It’s really essential that we start training the next generation of great technologists,” he said. Walmart uses AI in part to create personalized experiences for shopping, such as product recommendations. The company has also developed an internal digital assistant for employees to use inside stores to get information about pricing and inventory.
Mr. Cuban’s focus on AI comes as technologists and academics attempt to raise awareness about diversity and inclusion issues within AI and the technology industry. Women and minorities are underrepresented in artificial intelligence, and experts say that’s a problem that could contribute to algorithmic bias.
His effort also comes as the Trump administration is completing guidance for agencies on how to regulate artificial intelligence and proposing a spending increase of about 30% in the 2021 nondefense budget for AI.
Mr. Cuban’s AI Bootcamps program began last year with about 40 high school students in Dallas. By the end of this year, the program will have reached more than 150 high-schoolers in Dallas and five other cities including Detroit and Omaha, according to the foundation.
In the virtual bootcamps being conducted this fall, students will learn about four branches of AI: chatbots, machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing.
Student exercises include building chatbots, developing mock “smart homes” that can turn virtual lights on and off on command, and building an AI model that recognises common traffic signs, a key requirement for self-driving cars. The applications are built using tools from Microsoft Corp.’s cloud computing platform, Azure. Each programme consists of four half-day courses.
In the first virtual bootcamp session this fall, which took place on Oct. 24, some students built a chatbot that answers questions about a fictitious ice cream shop and another that answers questions about the AI Bootcamps, based on the program’s website.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Cuban told the students that AI can be used in a variety of ways, ranging from developing vaccines for Covid-19 to analysing basketball games to create better strategies for winning games.
He told students he’s learned more about AI through tutorials from Coursera, an organization that offers online computer science classes, and Amazon.com Inc.’s cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services. Branches of AI he has studied include reinforcement learning, generative adversarial networks and machine learning.
“It is so important that everyone has the opportunity to understand how this technology works, and how it is affecting daily lives,” said Craig Brabec, chief data analytics officer at McDonald’s. Mr. Brabec, who will be a guest speaker at an upcoming bootcamp session, said the fast-food chain is exploring the use of AI to speed up the drive-through order process.
In the first virtual bootcamp session this fall, Mark Cuban answered questions from students, covering topics ranging from how AI will influence hiring to how it could help people with mental health issues and disabilities. Edited for length and clarity.
Do you have to have a background in coding or software engineering to get a job in AI?
Mr. Cuban: It depends. If you want to move the ball forward, learning programming languages like Python is going to be beneficial. You can also participate in AI as being one of the people that aggregates and analyses data that’s being put into the algorithms. We also need domain-specific knowledge.
Will AI be better at choosing employees than a human recruiter?
Mr. Cuban: I don’t think so, because there’s always going to be a human dynamic to it. Sometimes a smile will say more than anything an AI can pick up. I do think companies will complement what a human recruiter does in the hiring process.
How can AI help in health care?
Mr. Cuban: A company I invested in, Genetesis, uses machine learning to tell whether a person has heart disease. Without this, there’s a whole battery of tests that have to take place. In mental health, there is a place for chatbots, where you can have an avatar who interacts with the person and offers them some compassion and companionship. It’s early days, but it’s not inconceivable that within the next 5 years, if you want to talk about Shakespeare with somebody, you can pull up a chatbot that is an expert in Shakespeare.