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Grainger Engineering faculty lead two new national AI institutes


Miranda Holloway

Two of seven new artificial intelligence institutes from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are being led by researchers from The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
The NSF announced five new institutes and the USDA announced two new institutes as a part of a joint program.
Teams lead by chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Huimin Zhao and by computer science professor Vikram Adve were awarded $20 million as part of the investment in national hubs to advance AI research and workforce development.
“Just as prior NSF investments enabled the breakthroughs that have given rise to today’s AI revolution, the awards being announced today will drive discovery and innovation that will sustain American leadership and competitiveness in AI for decades to come,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan.
NSF Molecule Maker Lab
Zhao will lead the NSF AI Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy, and Manufacturing, or the NSF Molecule Maker Lab (MMLI). The institute is anchored in the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.
This institute focuses on developing new AI-enabled tools to accelerate automated chemical synthesis and advance the discovery and manufacture of novel materials and bioactive compounds. It will also serve as a training ground for scientists with combined expertise in AI, chemistry, and bioengineering.
“Over the past decade there have been major advances in both AI and automated chemical and biochemical synthesis, making the timing for the launch of the MMLI both judicious and urgent,” said Zhao. “Synergistically integrating these powerful disciplines now has the potential to dramatically accelerate and advance the manufacturing and discovery of molecules with important functions that address major unsolved problems in society. Not doing so would result in a major missed opportunity for the U.S. research community.”
The multi-institutional effort also includes collaborators across the Illinois campus, the University Laboratory High School, Ulsan Nation Institute of Science and Technology, Northwestern University, Penn State University, and Rochester Institute of Technology.
AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management, and Sustainability
Adve will lead the USDA- NIFA Artificial Intelligence for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management, and Sustainability (AIFARMS) Institute. This institute is anchored in the National Center for Digital Agriculture, a center that runs as a collaboration between the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, IGB, the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, and The Grainger College of Engineering.
This institute will advance AI research in computer vision, machine learning, soft object manipulation and intuitive human-robot interaction to solve major agricultural challenges including labor shortages, efficiency and welfare in animal agriculture, environmental resilience of crops, and the need to safeguard soil health. The institute features a new joint Computer Science +Agriculture degree and global clearinghouse to foster collaboration in AI-driven agriculture research.
“I’m excited and humbled to be leading the AIFARMS Institute. Illinois and our partner institutions are world leaders in the areas of Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, and Agriculture Research, and these strengths are reflected in the breadth and depth of the AIFARMS team,” says Adve. “By fostering close collaborations between these researchers, and by growing and diversifying a workforce skilled in digital agriculture, we have an exciting opportunity to help address some of the most daunting challenges faced by world agriculture today.”
The team includes researchers from Illinois, University of Chicago, the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, USDA Agricultural Research Service, and Argonne National Laboratory.
A commitment to innovation 

These two institutes add to a rich research landscape in the College and University at large. 

 "These new AI institutes speak to the strength of our faculty's dedication to staying at the forefront of research and creating collaborative, interdisciplinary partnerships on campus and beyond," said Dean Rashid Bashir. "Grainger Engineering's research is committed to bettering the world in all facets of life, and AI poses a unique and valuable space to innovate."
Research in AI and other cutting edge technologies is the center of the College’s mission as outlined in the most recent strategic plan’s focus on basic and translational research impact. 

These institutes will join dozens of groundbreaking, multidisciplinary centers and labs led by Grainger Engineering faculty and staff. These centers aim to solve the world’s toughest challenges with an interdisciplinary work ethic and collaborative, supportive culture.