Amazon Alexa Head Rohit Prasad Talks Academia and Industry’s Role in AI at Conference Hosted by Illinois Tech
Illinois Institute of Technology alumnus Rohit Prasad sat down with university President Raj Echambadi for a wide-ranging discussion about AI and higher education’s role in shaping its future
Illinois Institute of Technology recently hosted Times Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed’s Digital Universities US conference, which drew higher education, industry, and policy leaders from around the world to Illinois Tech’s historic Mies Campus. This three-day event was sponsored by companies including Microsoft, Turnitin, and Adobe and included more than 40 sessions of keynote speakers, interactive panel discussions, workshops, opportunities for networking, and more.
Themes for this year’s conference included accelerating student success in the digital age; agile teaching, learning, and assessment transformations; and building the smart, green campus of the future. Tech, higher education, and industry professionals had the opportunity to discuss these pressing topics at Illinois Tech—the only tech-focused university in Chicago.
Among the speakers featured at the conference was Illinois Tech Trustee Rohit Prasad (M.S. EE '99), senior vice president and head scientist for Amazon Alexa, who joined Illinois Tech President Raj Echambadi for a fireside chat. In a wide-ranging discussion, Prasad, an Illinois Tech alumnus and one of the pivotal leaders behind the creation of Alexa, one of today’s most used personal AI, provided insights into the present and future of artificial intelligence and the role of higher education in preparing students for careers in STEM, and how educational institutions can incorporate and work with AI in the curriculum.
“I think this is one of the most fascinating times in AI,” said Prasad. “But I’ve been here before.”
Prasad explained that today’s AI boom is similar to the crossroads that he and the industry faced when Amazon Alexa was first launched.
“When we launched Alexa with deep learning in those days, it was very evident that the confluence of richness of what you could do for the future suddenly shifted from academia to industry,” Prasad explained. “I became very worried that all professors were trying to come to industry. That would be really myopic if everybody left academia—who would train the next generation of the workforce? Who would do the next generation of research to get at the hard problems that we’re left to solve?”
Prasad said that to preserve the pipeline of future innovation, Amazon set up industry partnerships with academia including research centers, and a scholars program where professors and students could spend time in Amazon labs working on Amazon data sets while still learning and teaching at universities. Prasad also expressed support for contract research and development and university hubs, where the focus is on problem sets that are mutually important.
Echambadi kicked off the three-day Digital Universities conference by calling for a digital-first approach to education to tackle what he argues is the greatest challenge the world is facing: wasted human capital and lack of educational opportunities for all. In his opening remarks, Echambadi stressed the importance of expanding access to education, saying “restricting access for education to a select few on the residential campuses is by definition, exclusionary. True inclusion is about reaching learners anyplace, anywhere, anytime.”
In his conversation with Echambadi, Prasad underlined the impact of diversified learning models to incorporate learners from all backgrounds.
“Remote education—what we can do for lifelong learning for people who want to learn during their careers, I think Illinois Tech especially, it’s in our DNA here,” said Prasad. “Good affordability, good access, and good return on investment would be awesome for people who are trying to learn on the job. I think that is where we can make a huge difference.”
Echambadi noted that by 2025 approximately 3.5 million jobs will need to be filled in STEM fields alone, querying how universities can best prepare students for this new technological world. Prasad affirmed the impact of hands-on experience, critical thinking skills, and time learning in the classroom are for students pursuing STEM fields. But one central idea that he gained from his adviser at Illinois Tech had stuck with him all these years: the person at the center of the problem set.
“He had worked in industry, and he trained me on the question of ‘what customer problem are you solving?’ That was a light bulb moment, and it was so important in shaping how I think about my job,” Prasad said. “I get to live in the future, which is exciting, but I learned that in order to make the future happen, you really want to think about what lives or what customer problems are you going to change that will have immense impact.”
Prasad has harnessed that human-first mentality into his work as he continues to develop tomorrow’s great technological innovations, while also encouraging people from all backgrounds to explore STEM fields. He stressed the growing need for diverse minds in STEM, and highlighted how Amazon and his team at Alexa have created programs and initiatives to get people from underrepresented communities involved—including the Amazon Future Engineers program and the Amazon Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program.
Prasad called for these initiatives to be scaled and repeated, and said that resources need to be provided to people from underrepresented communities along their entire academic journey. “I firmly believe that just getting people from underrepresented backgrounds into a [STEM] program is not sufficient,” Prasad said. “I think we have to constantly support them so that they can succeed.”
In addition to Prasad and Echambadi, the conference also featured discussions about digital-first strategic planning and transformation, Illinois Tech’s Elevate program and job-readiness, promoting wellbeing in online learning, prioritizing innovation, empowering end users in cybersecurity, academic integrity in online learning, and harnessing data analytics to create the universities of tomorrow from notable Illinois Tech faculty speakers such as Kenneth Christensen, Mallik Sundharam, Jeremy Alexis, Anita Krug, Calvin Nobles, Michael Gosz, Joanne Howard, Weslynne Ashton, Lance Fortnow, and Jennifer deWinter. The day before conference programming began, attendees toured the historic Mies Campus architecture, led by Reed Kroloff, and Illinois Tech’s microgrid with Mohammad Shahidehpour.