Howard has long been making history, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the crowd gathered at the university’s founders’ library, which has carved wooden panels and arched windows. “It has always been committed to scientific discovery and innovation,” he said, citing past achievements in mathematics, chemistry and medicine.
“Howard, you’ve made history again,” he said.
About one-third of black science, technology, engineering and math professionals in the country graduate from HBCUs, Austin said. “They are the kind of people our country needs. They are the leaders who can strengthen our national security.”
But research funding has historically skewed heavily toward predominantly white institutions. “Clearly, the Department of Defense has historically not done enough to fully utilize talent, expertise and potential,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the audience at the Howard Convention.
“As Secretary Kendall pointed out,” Austin said, “only a fraction of the department’s research funding goes to HBCUs. You know, that just doesn’t add up. As secretary of defense, I’m determined to change that.”
Bruce Jones, vice president of research at Howard, said there are many problems with artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology. The machine’s ability to distinguish black faces is limited, and there are also problems with how the algorithm interprets other elements in the photo, which are obviously affected by the race of the person in the photo. A stick, he says, can simply be seen as a stick — or a gun. “Part of the way to do that is by diversifying the people working in AI.”
The Pentagon currently has 14 university-affiliated research centers where defense, industry and academic officials share space and collaborate on basic and applied research. These include centers at the University of Maryland, College Park and Johns Hopkins University.
At Howard’s new center, researchers will begin work on Feb. 1 in a temporary location while a more permanent home is being renovated, said Danda Rawat, who directs the Howard Defense Department’s Center of Excellence for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning and will be Principal Investigator of the new center. They hope the five-year, $90 million contract will be renewed “for life,” he said.
Howard will lead a collegiate coalition that includes Jackson State, Delaware State, Bowie State, Norfolk State, Hampton University, Memorial Florida and Tughaloo College.
One focus, Rawat said, will be improving collaboration between platforms and sites, from land to sea to air to space to cyberspace — and from humans to machines and vice versa.
Howard University President Wayne AI Frederick said in an interview that the contract is recognition of Howard’s work in advancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which sends more black students to those fields than any other university Ph.D., to establish programs designed to facilitate such tracks.
“We place great emphasis on expanding the research enterprise at the University,” he said, both to develop a more diverse pool of researchers and to ensure that research benefits a more diverse group.
The center will also benefit students, both those who can do research in the lab and those who attend junior high on the Howard campus, who will gain early exposure to these fields, Frederick said.
“American scientists, engineers and researchers have always helped keep our nation safe,” Austin said. “They develop medical methods to protect our troops in combat. The prosthetics they produce give hope to many veterans and their families. They meet 21st century challenges such as global pandemics and the climate crisis.”
To seek out the latest innovations, military officials must build more bridges with these scientists, he said. “We need your ideas,” he said. “We need your creativity. We need to use the skills of all of us.”