Computers may be powerful, but they can’t think for themselves — at least not yet. The Institute for Advanced Study is trying to change that. The Institute’s School of Mathematics is launching a three-year program to develop the mathematical underpinnings of machine learning, including unsupervised learning, deep learning, optimization, and statistics. The program is funded by a $2 million donation from Eric Schmidt — chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet — and his wife, Wendy.

The tech billionaire couple has donated to Princeton-area tech research before and established the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund at Princeton University. Schmidt is a trustee of the Institute.

The machine learning program will begin in the fall. In addition to undertaking mathematical research it will explore connections to biology, computer vision, natural language processing, neuroscience, social science, and other fields.

Sanjeev Arora of Princeton University, who will be visiting professor in the Institute’s School of Mathematics, will lead the program. The program will include post-docs and visitors and culminate in 2019-’20 with a year focused on theoretical machine learning.

The Institute predicts the program will lead to collaborations with the school’s computer science and discrete math program, which has been led by Avi Wigderson since he joined the faculty in 1999.

“This generous donation enables the expansion of computer science research at the Institute and positions us with the most exciting developments in the field,” Wigderson said. “Machine learning techniques are finding new applications almost daily and are already transforming society in numerous ways, but these methods, and the resulting technology, are far from well understood, both from efficiency and vulnerability viewpoints. These important issues beg theoretical understanding and guidance.”

Foundational work on both the theory and practice of computer science has taken place at the Institute from the early days of the field. In 1945 working outside of industry and the rules of academe, a group of engineers and mathematics professor John von Neumann developed one of the first stored-program computers, whose structure (von Neumann architecture) formed the mathematical basis of computer hardware and software and strongly influenced the development of modern computing.

“This gift from Eric and Wendy highlights the importance of basic research and supports our endeavors to explore the deepest and most relevant questions about our world,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, Institute director.

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