University-Industry Engagement Week

Sponsored research only ‘one-third of the equation’ in JHU-Amazon AI initiative

By David Schwartz
Published: June 14th, 2022

A detailed article on the growing strategic partnership between Johns Hopkins and Amazon appears in the May issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

A recently inked partnership between Johns Hopkins University and Amazon — called the JHU + Amazon Initiative for Interactive AI — is designed to “leverage the university’s world-class expertise in interactive AI to advance groundbreaking technologies in machine learning, computer vision, natural language understanding, and speech processing; democratize access to the benefits of AI innovations; and broaden participation in research for diverse, interdisciplinary scholars and other innovators.”

However, “sponsored research is only one-third of the equation” in Amazon’s five-year investment, according to Sanjeev Khudanpur, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering, who will serve as the initiative’s founding director. The other elements, he explains, will include doctoral fellowships, faculty awards, gift funding, and community projects.

This is far from the first collaboration between JHU and Amazon. “We’ve been good partners for many years,” says Khudanpur, who notes that discussions for this initiative started a couple of years ago. “They’ve supported academic research here, and my counterpart at Amazon and I have a 15-year history. He said, ‘You guys do all these things we care about; we need to make it more formal.’ To make it really compelling for Amazon, he said, we have to leverage all the [opportunities] at JHU; there’s enough critical mass.”

On the university side “it was definitely a joint effort,” says Seth Zonies, a director of business development for Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures. “My role has always been to look for opportunities to help facilitate these collaborations with industry on behalf of the faculty. I had gotten to know Sanjeev over a couple of years, and since he and his colleagues have a lot of interactions with some tech companies and really understand how to create different pipelines of talent, I knew this would be a good place to focus our attention and efforts.”

A lot of the foundational work, he continues, was talking with Khudanpur and his colleagues about the opportunity to take the strengths of the school “and put them together into a more strategic type of action.” The fact that several faculty members are now Amazon Scholars — working part-time at the company — “created an even more clear opportunity, because they know what happens on the inside and have deeper relationships with the decision makers. So, it all started to crystallize.”

Khudanpur notes that involvement of students will be a critical element of the partnership. “One of the things Amazon likes about us is that we do really strong research in areas they care about,” he says. “We felt if we picked the best students and empowered them, it would benefit everyone — including Amazon. They will have an advisor, but [advisors] will not give orders; we have the best students, and we trust them enough to do it well.”

The fellowships, which are year-long programs, also contribute to goodwill between Amazon and the JHU students. “They want to work for Amazon, and an Amazon scientist adds a dimension of real-life research to the fellowship — early insight into where research is going,” he notes.

Then there are the faculty awards, which help support early research being conducted by faculty members and their students. “The faculty members are engaged; there’s more adult supervision than in the fellowship,” says Khudanpur. However, he adds, it’s not sponsored research. “Only when it gets close enough to what Amazon wants for a product or services do they get into sponsored research,” he explains. The faculty-student “diad” program, he adds, is also for a year, but it is renewable for another year. “My goal is to grow this,” he says.

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