In recent years, applications for artificial intelligence (AI) have been growing at an accelerated pace, affecting every field from finance and logistics to manufacturing, healthcare, and even education. Meanwhile, the professionals needed to utilize this technology are in short supply in Japan and around the world, and competition to acquire them is fierce.
In response to this talent shortage, Keio University launched the AI and Advanced Programming Consortium (AIC) in 2019, a groundbreaking learning community unique among Japanese universities. Here, students come together from all years and faculties, from the sciences to the humanities, to acquire knowledge and expertise in AI.
The AIC was launched as "a place to learn AI programming and business as an organization of Keio students, by Keio students, for Keio students" when current Keio University President Kohei Itoh was Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology. Notably, the AIC system allows student experts in AI, programming, and potential business applications to hold training workshops and teach students who want to learn. Associate Professor Takahiro Yakoh, who now heads the AIC, says that this egalitarian teaching approach, a Keio tradition called hangaku hankyo or "learning while teaching, teaching while learning," is highly effective for students.
"When we started the pilot program in 2018, there was already growing interest among students across the sciences and humanities. In the fast-paced world of AI tech, it can be difficult for universities to keep their curriculum up to date with the latest developments or hire dedicated experts in the field. That's why we concluded that the AIC would be a more advanced place to learn if highly skilled students with up-to-date knowledge designed the curriculum and taught classes. Academic faculty and staff act in a supporting role, helping the courses continually evolve and adapt to meet the needs of students who want to study here," says Associate Professor Yakoh.
At the AIC, all students have a hand in running the consortium, whether serving as workshop instructors and assistants, managing servers, or performing PR to recruit more students. Students are also responsible for planning and organizing contests and events in collaboration with corporate sponsors that support the AIC, which allows them to deploy projects more quickly and with a higher degree of autonomy.
"The consortium's budget is funded by sponsor companies, allowing greater flexibility and freedom when implementing new ideas. We are currently considering ways to provide certification to students who have studied at the AIC, in addition to dispatching student instructors and providing learning materials to Keio-affiliated elementary, junior high, and high schools. We hope that, in addition to the knowledge and skills they acquire, the experiences students have and the people they meet here will be useful to them in the future," says Associate Professor Yakoh.
The AIC offers around 15 courses each in the spring and fall semesters, all free of charge. Students can choose from courses that suit all levels and needs, from learning the basics of AI and programming languages such as Python to applying machine learning and deep learning in real-world contexts. Classes are made accessible through various formats and include live streams, video on demand, and in-person instruction, each tailored to the content of the course. More than 9,000 students have applied since the program launched four years ago.
Here, we sit down with the instructors and students involved in running and organizing two introductory courses on AI in business that have been popular among humanities and science majors.
AI Business Fundamentals, held in the second half of Fall Semester 2021, is currently the only course that features faculty with a variety of AI-related business experience. At the helm as instructor is Visiting Professor Shigeru Shiina, a well-known expert in the AI industry. A graduate of the Faculty of Science and Technology, Visiting Professor Shiina has a unique background, moving from AI research at a major company to consulting before serving as CEO of several companies. He and President Itoh have been close friends since their student days, and he was deeply involved in establishing the AIC.
"When President Itoh approached me to discuss ideas before the consortium launched, I proposed three key factors: cross-faculty collaboration, university-industry collaboration, and the use of student instructors. Later, I was invited to teach a course of my own at the AIC, where I planned a curriculum that drew on my consulting experience and business perspectives. What's more, the course requires zero knowledge of computers or programming," says Visiting Professor Shiina.
The five-session course focuses on group work in teams of five or six and culminates in a business contest held during the final class. Students from different faculties come together for regular discussions and learn the process of turning new business ideas into reality using AI. The course also provides a wealth of practical advice that students can use in business situations, such as ways to navigate a sea of opinions to find middle ground and techniques to create materials and presentations.
"Of course, companies need people with a strong foundation in AI theory and research," Visiting Professor Shiina recognizes. "But there are also aspects of business that require more than theory alone, such as how to create a new business using AI technology and how to appeal to potential customers and partner companies. A successful business needs to match brilliant AI engineers with specialists in different fields like marketing and promotion. I'm trying to develop a curriculum that trains talented trailblazers who can pioneer new businesses needed today," adds Visiting Professor Shiina.
Yuki Ohashi, a fourth-year student at the Keio University Faculty of Law, has served as a teaching assistant to Visiting Professor Shiina during the AI Business Fundamentals course. He says that a trip to the West Coast of the United States during his first year at Keio sparked his interest in the convergence of industry and technology. Ohashi began taking courses after the launch of the AIC. His knowledge of AI and basic programming skills have landed him several offers, including at a robotic process automation (RPA) company, the digital division of a financial institution, and the research arm of a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm.
"Employers recognized and valued the year and a half of experience I gained in sales and engineering as a student intern. It helped me get the job I wanted in the digital division of a major financial institution. Technology will become an increasingly necessary tool in every industry in the future. I think the AIC can help students learn the minimum knowledge necessary to collaborate with experts and handle related software, even if you are not an AI specialist yourself," says Ohashi.
Student interest in AI is high across the humanities and natural sciences, regardless of gender or field of study. The Women's AI Study Group was started in the spring semester of 2021 to provide women with opportunities to start learning about AI. Yuki Sasa, a second-year master's student at the Keio University Graduate School of Economics, has been a consortium member since its inception. A tech enthusiast since childhood, she also served as an instructor during the fall semester. An aversion to chemistry made her choose the Faculty of Economics, where she could make the most of mathematics alongside the humanities. Her interest in statistics stems from a class where she learned that she could get started with AI by crossing her first love of IT with data analysis, which fueled her drive to start studying AI.
"I never really had a chance to learn about AI in class, so I bought some books on Python and started studying programming on my own during my second year at university. At the time, there were very few women working in AI and programming, so finding a group of like-minded female friends was a major hurdle. That was the only impetus a small group of me and my friends needed to start the Women's AI Study Group, which focuses as much on learning about Python and AI as creating a community of women interested in AI. I think it's definitely useful making friends who share similar goals, regardless of faculty, to exchange information and improve your performance," says Sasa.
Classes are conducted online for the first half of the ten-session course, featuring lectures on basic knowledge and a participatory curriculum such as AI quizzes for those with no prior knowledge or experience in AI or programming. In the latter half of the course, students work in person in groups to create a new AI business plan. In the final class, they present their work in a business context where employees from corporate sponsors like Google are invited to come and listen.
"We often tend to think that AI and programming are things best left to developers, so the AIC was a great place for me to discover how we can promote AI and programming and apply them to a wide range of professions such as education. Looking back, I am very grateful to the AIC. I've been able to take my experiences here and incorporate them into my job search and my vision for the future," says Sasa.