Master of machines: the rise of artificial intelligence calls for postgrad experts

Helena Pozniak
Humanoid robot NAO Next Gen by Aldebaran Robotics. Photograph: Getty Images

Intelligence is no longer exclusively human. Machines can now recognise a human face, drive a car, beat a chess master and cope with uncertainty. To be as clever as a human, a system must make the right decision in complex and changing conditions – swerve to avoid someone while not knowing if it’s safe, for example, or understand loosely worded commands. 

Expectations of what artificial intelligence (AI) can do run high, and universities are keen to meet the needs of industry. Cheaper hardware and software and an abundance of data have fuelled interest. The scope is broad – and a range of master’s now offer study in robotics, neuroscience, linguistics, music perception, visualisation and fuzzy logic.

“I believe AI will dominate computer science for the next 20 years,” says Prof Hani Hagras, director of the Computational Intelligence Centre at the University of Essex, which offers an MSc in AI and other associated courses such as computational finance. 

Many of his students come from a financial background – AI can be useful in assessing risk and fraud and making sense of vast amounts of data. Learning the discipline makes them highly employable, says Hagras, and the same can be said for other sectors such as health, gaming and the automotives.

Essex runs crash courses to open up AI for non-computer scientists. “Many courses touch on AI but don’t have it in the title – robotics, for example,” Hagras says. “It’s a hot topic in the games industry – many use AI even though they may not call it that.” 

Most courses want a computer science degree, and they are competitive – the University of Manchester’s MSc in AI is often oversubscribed, but may make exceptions for science graduates with professional programming experience. “But we try to give students the broad perspective,” says Manchester’s Prof Uli Sattler. “AI means more than just machine learning.”

At UCL, AI master’s students will be taught some of the course by experts from DeepMind Technologies, a Google subsidiary famous for creating AlphaGo. Last year, the program beat the reigning champion at the ancient and complex Chinese board game Go – a feat experts believed was a decade away.

Nearby, Imperial College’s specialist master’s is open only to students with a solid background in computing. The course is broad – cognitive robotics, computational finance and more. One of the longest established centres for AI is based at the University of Edinburgh. From here postgrads go on to work in a variety of specialisms, from fraud detection software to spacecraft control. Car manufacturers, finance and healthcare all have openings for AI specialists. “It’s a huge field, moving very, very quickly,” says Hagras.

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