Monday, June 24

Kathy Hochul to Propose AI Research Center Using $275 Million in NY State Funds

In her third State of the State address, Gov. Kathy Hochul will propose a first-of-its-kind statewide consortium that would bring together public and private resources to put New York at the forefront of the artificial intelligence landscape.

Under the plan, Ms. Hochul would direct $275 million in state funds toward the building of a center to be jointly used by a handful of public and private research institutions, including the State University of New York and the City University of New York.

Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute would each contribute $25 million to the project, known as “Empire A.I.” Additional private funding has been secured from the billionaire Thomas Secunda, who helped found Bloomberg L.P., and through the Simons Foundation, whose affiliated research center, the Flatiron Institute, will also be a partner.

The initiative will include a physical center in upstate New York where Ms. Hochul says the substantial computing power necessary to run modern A.I. software will be accessible remotely to members of the consortium.

The futuristic focus stands out from many of the governor’s other proposals, which are aimed at combating problems like medical debt, literacy and maternal mortality.

Ms. Hochul described it as an important investment that would strengthen the state’s economy for years, helping to offset the disparities between tech companies and academic institutions in the race to develop A.I.

“This isn’t just a win for the future of tech — this is a win for the institutions across the state that will benefit from the growth of this technology,” Ms. Hochul said in a statement.

New York’s foray into developing A.I. comes at a time when such research faces fresh challenges. Researchers develop artificial intelligence technologies by exposing A.I. models to vast amounts of information, much of which has come from the internet. But lawsuits from the owners of that information — including The New York Times — have raised questions about who should have access to it and for what reasons.

Ms. Hochul will also have to sell her proposal to the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature, which will weigh it against many other priorities. This year, that negotiation will have to account for a looming budget deficit.

Many progressives favor raising taxes on the rich, but Ms. Hochul has so far refused to take that route, saying that increasing taxes would drive high earners out of the state.

Ms. Hochul’s economic strategy has so far included a series of large investments — like a $5.5 billion incentive package to secure Micron’s new facility outside Syracuse — that she hopes will ensure New York’s place in the technological marketplace.

The new project has some high-profile supporters: Sam Altman, the chief executive of OpenAI, cheered the proposal, saying such private-public partnerships were “critical for the development and deployment of safe and beneficial A.I. technologies.”

Julie Samuels, the president and executive director of Tech:NYC, which represents companies like Google, Microsoft and Meta, said the consortium would attract not only academics, but also companies eager to hire top talent.

Companies like Microsoft and Google have long dominated the space in large part because they have had access to the costly computational resources and data that A.I. systems need. That advantage has also allowed tech companies to draw researchers into private industry, where they can earn much more than at academic institutions.

“We are, in some sense, unable to compete in a way that we would like to,” explained Jeannette Wing, a computer science professor and executive vice president for research at Columbia University.

And while the consortium would not entirely level the playing field between the public and private sectors, it could allow researchers access to tools that have been out of reach.

“Industry is moving so quickly — they don’t actually have time to think about the long-term future for where this technology is going. That is the role of academia,” Dr. Wing said, adding that researchers would also be able to take up ethical questions that those in industry might have less incentive to consider.

Still, some questioned the state’s plan, which would involve creating its own cloud computing infrastructure rather than building on top of existing platforms like Amazon or Google — a logistically complicated endeavor that could also raise concerns about security and reliability.

“It’s a massive effort,” said Oren Etzioni, the former technical director for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. “Is this going to reinvent the wheel in order to put a Big Apple stamp on it, or a New York State stamp on it? That could be very worrisome.”

Ms. Hochul’s team stressed that a key aim of the project was to challenge the monopoly that large tech companies have on A.I., enabling collaborative research in the public interest.

Proponents say such a collaboration would allow academics to apply A.I. technology to entirely new fields of study — from urban planning to medicine and music.

“I’d actually like the folks who do weather to have access to stronger computer systems,” Kathryn Garcia, New York’s director of operations, said in an interview the day before a snowstorm was expected to hit the state.

“I have a forecast that could be ‘maybe nothing’ to ‘maybe a lot,’” she added. “When you’re trying to plan, and be prepared for something, our current weather models aren’t keeping up with where climate change is going.”

Cade Metz contributed reporting.