Ethics, AI’s potential and healthcare impact- today’s engineering student is learning all this while s/he studies technology. A chat with Dean Yortsos reveals why
Yannis C. Yortsos, Dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) was recently in India on a three-day trade and academic mission. Dean Yortsos, who has co-developed the Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP) to re-imagine 21st century engineers and has been awarded the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s Gordon Prize in May 2022, is an avid proponent of considering ethics and humanity while using technology. During his trip, he led officials from the highly-ranked private engineering school to restore the annual tradition to meet
in-person with the school’s India Advisory Board, and connecting with prestigious alumni and prospective students. Let’s sit in a classroom that talks about the future.
Tell us something about your institution. What do you like about India?
With more than 13,000 international students currently enrolled, USC ranks as one of the very top universities in the United States in attracting international students. I have been coming to India once a year since I became the Dean of the School of Engineering since 2006. I think that India is obviously a big country; one of the biggest in the world with a lot of value in education that people believe in it. Also, I must tell you that during the time that I first came here, it was the time when Tom Friedman published ‘World Is Flat’ and talked about Infosys. Infosys was one of the reasons I was curious and interested in figuring out what they do; Infosys, of course, meant Narayana Murthy. I met Narayana when I came here then and since then we became friends and so he is now on my Board of Advisors here in India. He has been instrumental in creating a Board that helps the school understand what India is doing, where is it going, and what are the tendencies for education.
Can you explain why?
The emphasis is that India has been in many ways a pioneer in Computer Science in many different ways. Now, I know that it has also redirected towards manufacturing as well. So, in many ways a leader of technology in some ways including the value that Indian students bring to the U.S. when they become successful and then, of course, they are technology leaders in many different ways. If you look historically at things, India has important advantages which I think has to do with the history in terms of having a very strong civilization if you go back. I’m originally from Greece, so I relate a lot to civilization, histories and I compare the two entities in some way. Although Greece is a lot more than India but, nonetheless. Also, emphasis on values like education is an important part.
Is anything distinct about Indian students?
I was talking earlier today that most of our Indian students adapt very, very nicely and very quickly. They don’t have issues of adaptation and or anything like that which we have sometimes with students from different countries. Yeah, it’s actually an important element. Plus, I think by maybe history or by upbringing they know how to negotiate in a good sense of the world so that they can find a way in a positive way and find an optimal way that it’s kind of a win-win, which is, I think, an innate characteristic of many Indian students. Also, the fact that Indian have the ability to use the English language very well which is the lingua franca of today’s world. And, therefore, can play an important role in this area. They can feel very comfortable if they come to the US.
Did something change about their interest in U.S. Education and up-skilling during the pandemic?
Engineering celebrates this year 50 years of distance learning. Originally, distance learning was, you take the class, and you beam it through microwave or satellite to the local industry. Local industry in the United State and in Los Angeles was Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, mostly aerospace TRW. That was prior to the internet being available. 1999 we took everything, and we put it on the web. So, USC has been doing distance learning in engineering since ‘1999. When it came to transitioning to a hybrid environment or even an online environment only, our faculty were pretty much very comfortable with this. We have in-house technology that was developed over the years.
Is it easy to swing back to the usual learning paradigm after the new habits and formats that many Universities and students adopted during the pandemic?
I actually taught both before the internet and also, I taught during the pandemic a course on renewable energy using our in-house technology. It was a classroom in which we were there. So, we had a lot of screens that had the students, wherever they were, and I was teaching to the class with the students over there. It was kind of interesting. I tell you a little bit of a story there because when I taught a class the next morning, I get an email from a parent who said to me ‘Your class last night was really very interesting’. So, obviously, he was listening to what I was teaching.
What’s our challenge as we move from Homo Sapiens to Homo Deus – as Yuval Noah Harari predicts? How full-baked is AI for healthcare?
Technology is not a prohibitive factor. It’s a question that policy-makers need to think – how to get ready for the new world. We will find out ways to make healthcare strong with AI. Engineering is an enabling discipline. AI will not replace humans but will empower them. In five to ten years, we would be able to revolutionize healthcare – from repair to wellness. We could march towards a world that is without illness, and that is about wellness.
You have so many schools and disciplines under the USC umbrella. How useful is cross-pollination of ideas and domains here?
There is a tremendous degree of inter-disciplinary work here. Some remarkable intersection areas seen recently are – cinema and engineering, technology and gaming, computer science and interactive digital mediums. There is a lot of traction in the area of AI for society – where we can use AI to solve different problems in the social sphere.
How important is research for learning? Like what you do with Startup Garage, there’s iCOPS, there’s National Design?
When I look at what we do in the School of Engineering, we have four pillars, as I call them – Talent, New Educational Programs, Thought Leadership and Impact. What impact do you have? So, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship that’s an important part. As part of this we set up a garage. Viterbi Garage helps companies take, let’s say, innovation in the lab and then make it, I mean – discover in the lab and make it impactful. The Viterbi Garage helps us put a lot more strength in the ecosystem, in innovation, entrepreneurship in the south of California area and this is near IS. With respect to research in these buckets that I mentioned, many of them mirror the grand challenges for engineering. The moonshots, I think, you mentioned that and this is an ability area. There are four of them and then in the area of health we have another three.
Is it easy to inject ethics at the stage at which students come in to learn advanced courses and engineering?
We can try and it’s important to make that endeavor. We can, at least, make them understand the impact they have with what they do. That cognizance was not available in traditional disciplines and it’s crucial to develop that lens in future disruptors. The focus should be on creating a strong knowledge foundation but with a high sense of human and societal impact. Technology and society are going to be intertwined as we move ahead. We are trying to equip our students to develop a sense of the implications and consequences of their actions.
If you look at trust, it requires competence and character. You don’t want to fly in an airplane where the pilot is a very nice guy but doesn’t know how to fly the plane. So, that’s a competence part and you don’t want to fly on a plane where the pilot is very competent but has a bad character. So, I think this trustworthiness will be expected hopefully from all our professionals as they grow in some way.
So, the future professional, would he/she be a well-rounded professional? Would he/she be specialized?
My ideal is someone who has very strong foundations but this foundation should not be simply in, let’s say, in technology for the Engineer School but also understanding societal impacts of this including possibly the importance of humanities and things like that. But he has the predisposition to be inclined to do things technology wise because that’s their predisposition. I think that we need to be able to always create well-rounded people because technology and society, the interface, is intertwined even more and more.
You will see a lot of this folding that’s going on. So, the future in which technologies are unaware of the societal impact, I think, will be very bad mix. Conversely, if you have people on that side but not understand technology that’s also a bad mix as well. So, I think you have to have this sort of, this is what I call Engineering ‘Plus’ from the engineering perspective in which, the ‘Plus’ thing talks about other disciplines other than engineering.
But can you teach people to be responsible and ethical if it is not in their characters and mind-sets already?
You cannot. You can motivate them, you can explain. Can you instill character on people? At least people need to understand the impact they can have. And, I think, that’s an important part because in traditional engineering curricula this is not happening. People do not learn that and people, like in India for example or in Greece, when I was in High School you learn all the classics, you understand the conflicts- Antigoni, Sophocles and all the ancient philosophers. It’s very important that because ultimately we’re humans and we need to understand the fundamentals that drive that. So, you cannot say ‘Okay, now you go to college. Forget this part and eliminate it and don’t worry about this anymore’, particularly when technology brings up new things like algorithmic bias and things of that type. You have to worry about that.
Yannis C. Yortsos
Dean, Viterbi School of Engineering,
University of Southern California (USC)
By Pratima H