Amazon and the University of Southern California will create a machine learning research center – GeekWire

USC Viterbi School of Engineering. (USC Photo)

Amazon is helping to create a machine learning and artificial intelligence research lab at the University of Southern California.

The Center for Secure and Trusted Machine Learning, part of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, will support research that looks at new scalable ways to secure and preserve privacy in machine learning. Amazon and USC are establishing the center together.

The center’s goal is to make A.I. and machine learning technologies more secure and trusted by the public. It will be directed by Salman Avestimehr, professor of computer and electrical engineering at USC, who will also oversee related fellowships and the overall project.

Avestimehr said there are many companies besides Amazon that could benefit from the center’s research.

Salman Avestimehr is a professor of computer and electrical engineering at USC. (USC Viterbi School of Engineering Photo)

“Amazon is interested in this, and many others. [Machine learning] is a hot topic, and it’s on everybody’s mind,” Avestimehr said. “Privacy, security and trust resonates with everybody.”

Amazon’s artificial intelligence systems power many of the company’s services and products, ranging from its smart home devices to its e-commerce platform.

Amazon wouldn’t comment on if it will use this research to develop its A.I.-enabled products.

Amazon has faced increased scrutiny over privacy in recent years, including public backlash over human review of voice recordings from Alexa devices. It responded with a privacy setting that let users opt-out of human review — following similar announcements from Apple and Google — and sought to offer assurances about how those recordings were used.

The company announced various privacy-related features and updates at its devices event in October. It also last year hired privacy expert Anne Toth, who is now the company’s director of Alexa Trust. She previously led privacy and policy initiatives at Slack, and spent 13 years at Yahoo.

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Though it has relationships with other colleges, including the University of Washington, the program with USC is Amazon’s first machine learning-focused fellowship project on a campus.

Under Avestimehr’s direction, the center will accept qualified USC PhD candidates into its Amazon Machine Learning Fellows program, where they will gain access to funded research projects, annual fellowships, public research symposiums and annual workshops. The program will also reach out to younger engineers; there are plans to train and eventually recruit high school and university students.

Amazon and USC have partnered before on projects. The e-commerce giant said through a spokesperson that it chose to work with USC to develop a machine learning center partly because it deepens Amazon’s access to the graduate talent pool.

Amazon is headquartered in Seattle but has a sizable operation in Los Angeles and employs thousands across L.A. County.


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