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Caltech Spinoff Gives Back to the Place Where It All Began

Support for Caltech's Computing, Data, and Society Program Fellows will boost research in artificial intelligence (AI).

Published on Wednesday, January 31, 2024 | 12:56 pm

In the early 2010s, data scientist and entrepreneur Michael Amori (MS ’07) made contacts at Caltech alumni events that would change his career. A managing director at Deutsche Bank at the time, he was introduced to George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy and data science and director of the Center for Data Driven Discovery (CD3), and Ciro Donalek, a computational staff scientist at CD3. Djorgovski and Donalek were doing innovative work in virtual reality, big data, and artificial intelligence (AI) that piqued Amori’s interest. In 2016, the trio combined their expertise to launch Virtualitics, a company that uses AI, machine learning, and visualization technologies first developed at the Institute to analyze and help explain large data sets.

Now, the company has pledged $100,000 to Caltech over five years to support the Computing, Data, and Society Program (CDSP) Fellows, an initiative that aims to explore the real-world impacts of emerging technologies such as AI.

“Most of our technical team graduated from Caltech, so we feel a connection and want to foster a relationship,” says Amori, Virtualitics’ CEO and cofounder. “I hope that this funding will enable Caltech to train the new generation of computer scientists and create new research ideas in AI.”

Harnessing New Technologies

Like Virtualitics, the CDSP Fellows program grew from a collaboration between faculty and alumni. A few years ago, Adam Wierman, professor of computing and mathematical sciences and director of Information Science and Technology (IST), and Chris Umans, professor of computer science and holder of the William M. Coughran Jr. Leadership Chair for the Department of Computing + Mathematical Sciences, were chatting about ways to bolster the department and broaden its footprint across campus.

“We thought postdocs could be a way to bring a substantial additional research presence into the department,” Umans says. Additional conversations with IST Advisory Council member Mike Walsh (BS ’81), a software engineer and entrepreneur, solidified a focus on scholars who will help harness evolving computer and data technologies and leverage them in responsible, equitable, and ethical ways.

“Computer science is a sprawling field with connections to so many different areas, and we represent certain pieces of it at Caltech,” Umans says. “This program gives us a chance to sample more broadly. We can bring in postdoctoral scholars who work on algorithmic fairness, for example, or ethical AI, or disinformation. The point is to have some piece of the research agenda that touches something that has a societal benefit.”

Walsh and fellow IST Advisory Council member Jerrell Watts (MS ’96, PhD ’98) joined together as lead donors to the fellowship fund, and support from additional council members helped launch the program in early 2022. To date, the fund has supported four, two-year appointments for CDSP Fellows who are conducting research in areas such as large language models, reinforcement learning, and AI applications in chemistry and mathematical reasoning.

“The postdocs in this program are a ‘special sauce’ for Caltech,” Wierman says. “They come in with expertise outside of our faculty’s areas of focus and are given complete flexibility to choose what they work on and with whom. The result is often the creation of new connections between faculty and students in disparate research areas that have the potential to last long after the postdocs’ time at Caltech has ended.”

Building a Community

Philanthropic support will be essential to help the program grow. Eventually, Umans says, he envisions a large cohort of postdoctoral scholars—five to ten fellows each year—who can interact, collaborate, organize seminars, and engage with the larger Caltech community.

“We’re all going to be hit by an AI tsunami in the years to come,” says Amori, who also serves on the IST Advisory Council. “I think Caltech is going to be one of the places that helps shape that wave, and it’s exciting to be a part it.”

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