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Inaugural Class of AI Master’s Students Tackle a Transformative Moment in Tech

A man in a UT sweatshirt takes notes at his desk and smiles as the Longhorn silhouette and the words AI appear on screens nearby

Paulius Kutka, a software engineer based in London, has been leveraging modern computing tools to solve different problems at work for years. But he’s recently noticed a shift. Rapid advancements in artificial intelligence have started to make one area of computing wizardry – emerging intelligent systems – feel especially necessary to learn and use better.

“Most of the time it was lack of skill that stopped me from using AI,” Kutka said, “and I would default to the traditional ways of engineering.”

A Growing Need

Many professionals are now seeking to ramp up their skills in AI. This January, the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Future of Jobs survey found that understanding and knowing how to apply generative AI and big data in organizations is the single most pressing emerging skill for workers, according to companies around the globe.

“Knowledge of AI is now critical in companies beyond just tech,” said Adam Klivans, professor of computer science and the faculty director of a new online master’s program in AI at The University of Texas at Austin. “Companies in the health, biotechnology and finance sectors are now commonly deploying AI tools to accelerate their research and development.”

The inaugural class of 700 AI master’s students at the University just began taking classes this spring. Many, including Kutka, had been looking for opportunities to deepen skills in AI and were excited to be ale to enroll at a University with a top-10 ranking in AI and a massive alumni base around the world. Another selling point for Kutka and others was the price: about $10,000 total for a degree that can be completed in two years.

“In 2019, I got an offer from [another school] but at the time… I didn’t have the means to support myself so I had to decline,” he said. “The price unlocks the opportunity to many more bright people across the world and levels out the playing field.”

A man stands with his arms outstretched in front of the UT Tower's, wearing a spirit shirt
Paulius Kutka made a swing through Austin from his home base in London to pose for this photo. He is a member of the inaugural class of MSAI students. Courtesy: Paulius Kutka

Meeting the Moment

Thousands of applicants sought to enroll in UT’s AI master’s program this year, and faculty members assessed applicants’ readiness to succeed, offering spots to 39% of applicants. Almost all students accepted into the program opted to enroll, said Eric Busch, director of the Computer and Data Science Online program, which houses the AI master’s and two other online master’s offerings at UT.

“We had a yield rate of 85%, which is exceptionally high for any graduate program,” Busch said. “That shows the strength of the program’s appeal.”

When the online master’s in AI was announced in January 2023, it was the first large-scale graduate program in artificial intelligence to be offered by a top-tier school. The announcement attracted attention in major media outlets like The New York Times and Fortune. Articles touted program leaders’ aim to serve as many as thousands of students within just a few years—something, Busch says, the program remains on track to do. A second cohort of students will start this fall, and so far applications are on pace to match that of the spring class.

Just over a quarter of the current AI students live abroad, and almost as many are current Texas residents. The remainder live in other parts of the United States, including Vicky Fowler, of Charlotte, North Carolina, whose work to date has primarily been in data security and cyber resiliency. What first caught Fowler’s attention about the program was UT’s research reputation across areas including healthcare, robotics and natural language processing. But she was also impressed by the educational experiences extended to online students — mentoring, tutoring assistance, research opportunities and other resources.

“Student support is not an afterthought.” — Vicky Fowler, AI master’s student

A Multifaceted Program

Boston resident Owen McCormack enrolled in the master’s program after the wave of recent attention to new AI technologies captured his imagination.

“When ChatGPT started to go viral early last year, I was immediately reminded of my own undergrad experience learning about AI,” McCormack said. “I had only scratched the surface of machine learning and computer vision, but even the research I read then seemed to be shaping an exciting future.”

McCormack and other students including Chris Labbe pointed to the program’s attention to ethics and societal impact as especially important for this moment in time.

“Having this as a required course for the new program is powerful,” Labbe said. “Everyone in this industry should be forced to take a deep look into the ethics of what we are doing.”With UT celebrating 2024 as the Year of AI, the timing for a return to UT felt fortuitous to Labbe. An Austin native who has since moved, he started his undergraduate career as a UT Longhorn years ago, though ultimately transferred out of state to be closer to his wife. The couple, now in Denver, discussed at length Labbe’s planned return to the campus where he started, albeit remotely. The opportunity felt both exciting and practical, too, given the number of top technology jobs that now emphasize the importance of a graduate degree, Labbe observed.

“Part of this journey is about protecting myself and my family by ensuring I am a preferred employee in that context,” Labbe said. “But most of it is about my desire to be a continuous learner and leverage the world-class education I expect to get from UT Austin.”