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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A look into the opening of Malachowsky Hall: Laughter, discussions and tough questions

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

On a chilly November morning, the 263,440-square-foot Malachowsky Hall finally opened to the UF community.

By my count, about 220 members of the Gainesville community, Ben Sasse’s family, and professional leaders from the world of engineering gathered in the NVIDIA Auditorium for a fireside chat. We were special invitees brought to commemorate the opening. The hall’s namesake was also present.

Among the students were leaders of engineering student organizations, such as Gator Motorsports, Girls Who Code, Florida Rocket Lab, WiCSE,Tau Beta Pi, and IEEE, among others.

I see his holding this event as an important step forward that helps partially dispel concerns from my first column.

The core event was a live-streamed “fireside chat” with NVIDIA co-founder and CEO Jensen Huang and UF President Ben Sasse. It was moderated by Forrest Masters, the interim Dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. 

Holding the event at all also suggests a commitment from Sasse to better understanding. But the level of technical understanding communicated from Huang, compared to Sasse, implies that Sasse needs to take a backseat to subject-area experts.

What I heard was a clear improvement over the vagueness of Sasse from before. It also emphasized the need for qualified, highly aware cheerleaders for UF’s part in the AI technology of tomorrow.

Questions came from student submissions. It seems like they erred on the side of safe questions, as my questions and likely many others were not among those asked.

Among the initial topics discussed were the emergence of AI, the intersectionality of intellectual disciplines, and the need for higher education at different stages of life. 

Sasse briefly addressed his controversial comments about cutting down UF’s departments when looking at how interdisciplinary work can occur. He felt that disciplinary boundaries will collapse under the emergence of big data that needs multiple perspectives.

“I’ve gotten in trouble in the past for sort of speculating on this in public,” Sasse said. “I wasn’t saying anything about the organizational [structure] at the University of Florida.”

In explaining what makes AI so impressive now, Huang noted how AI at this point is “sufficiently robust” and pointed to ChatGPT as an example of mass market capability.

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To give credit: Sasse did concede that he is no technologist during the chat. That humility on emergent technology is something I do not recall from earlier and marks an important improvement.

Another major subject was on the potential dangers that arise from AI.

Huang emphasized that a multilateral approach must be applied to anything autonomous operation needs technology, engineering, methodology operations, regulations, social norms, and ethical best practices. 

This is a culture that starts at the intellectual level and moves outward. Board of Trustees Chair Hosseini alleged we have Sasse because he will accelerate change at the inauguration. Sasse helping set university-wide policies will prove that as more than a political-sounding slogan.

When asked by the moderator about enforcement, the NVIDIA co-founder noted you need to balance over and under enforcement. This approach will depend on the culture and framing of who sets the regulations.

Ben Sasse then spoke on stewardship of this future technology. Sasse asserted that not everything could be solved by regulation, and “new, communal habits” would help establish how we engage with the technologies. He feared technology risked pulling us away from those we “break bread” with.

What exactly Sasse meant by this remains unclear to me, a further indication of the gulf between those in the know, Huang, and those who are the pitch people, Sasse.

Finally, Huang closed the event, talking about takeaways from the event to close the fireside chat. “Use the mightiest tool you have to advance the future for all of us,” Huang said.

Using people equivalent to Huang in the UF community will be how Sasse can convincingly  prove the ability for UF to be an “AI university.”

Ronin Lupien is a UF biomedical engineering senior.

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