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Professor Researches Artificial Intelligence in Abu Dhabi, Returns to BYU

Jacob Crandall

Photo by Alyssa Lyman

Jacob Crandall used to look at sand dunes from his office window in Abu Dhabi. Now, BYU’s newest computer science professor looks out at Utah’s Squaw Peak instead. Whatever the location, Crandall is ready and eager to continue his research.

Crandall obtained his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees–all in computer science–from BYU and recently returned to his college alma mater after spending seven years in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as a faculty member at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

Before working in Abu Dhabi, Crandall worked as a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“MIT was approached by the Abu Dhabi government to help create this new graduate research university there,” Crandall said. “I was one of the initial faculty in the computer science [department] there designing the curriculum and trying to create a research culture from scratch.”

According to Crandall, only 10 to 20 percent of Abu Dhabi residents are Emirati citizens; the rest are expatriates. This diversity was one of the many reasons Crandall and his family treasured the time they spent there.

“As a family, we loved living there. We originally were planning to live there for three years and we stayed there for seven,” Crandall said. “It was an incredible experience.”

Regardless of the country or culture, Crandall’s academic interests and research has been consistent.

“I’m fascinated with the fundamental question of intelligence. What makes things intelligent? How can we mimic it?” Crandall said. “I’m continuing some of the stuff I’ve done in the past, which focuses on how [to] develop machine learning algorithms that develop relationships with people.”

Much of that research has been concentrated specifically on how to program a machine to influence the behavior of others. What variables should be taken into consideration when programming a machine? What type of personality traits should it display? Does it make a difference if it talks?

“The other person’s behavior is impacted by what you do and what they want. So how should [the machine] behave, given that it has some understanding of what they want?” Crandall said. “How can you influence them to do what you want? What are the constraints?”

While this may sound like it belongs in a science fiction novel, humans have actually been developing relationships with machines for years.

“We all have our smartphones nowadays. Different software companies influence these smartphones; their software might influence us,” Crandall said. “There are relationships that develop all over the place.”

In fact, relationships were one of the main reasons Crandall has returned to BYU—although, these relationships were developed in a more traditional sense. Crandall received valuable guidance from his professors and mentors as a student and he is now looking to give back to the BYU community.

“I grew a lot here,” Crandall said. “The way I was mentored—that contributed to me wanting to come back here. I wanted to return the favor in some way.”

By James Collard Posted on