Welcome to our weekly roundup of Pittsburgh technology news by noted local tech writer David Radin. Got tech news? Email us. And check back every Thursday afternoon for more. 

CMU launches world’s first AI degree program — and entices NSF program director back to Pittsburgh to run it

Carnegie Mellon University announced last week that its School of Computer Science will start awarding undergraduate degrees in Artificial Intelligence (AI), which will combine sociological priorities with technical learning. The CMU degree — the first comprehensive AI degree in the country — will give students in-depth knowledge about transforming large amounts of data into actionable decisions.

The university has attracted Reid Simmons back to Pittsburgh and CMU, where he previously served as a research professor for almost 30 years. Currently program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), Simmons runs the National Robotics Initiative and Smart and Autonomous Systems programs. His NSF responsibilities include determining which AI/machine learning and robotics technologies should be awarded research grants.

According to Simmons, the CMU program will emphasize ethics and social responsibility: “The graduates will need to be aware of how they impact society and make sure the technology behaves in a responsible manner. They need to recognize bias and correct for it.”

Students will enter the AI major in their sophomore year, with up to 35 students per year selected for the program. Those not selected will be able to take the same AI classes as the majors, although their degrees would be in computational biology or computer science. Simmons said the school expects excess demand and has not yet solidified the selection criteria for students.

Simmons spoke with NEXTpittsburgh about how millions of people have downloaded open-source software to play around and discover AI/machine learning, and many start to call themselves experts. He is confident that the new degree program will be a qualitatively different experience from other AI training currently available.

The discussions about CMU offering a coherent, comprehensive AI degree started four years ago. Simmons was brought into the discussions last year. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report had already ranked CMU as the top school in AI.

Meanwhile, Facebook announced the opening of a new AI lab here in Pittsburgh. Their first two hires are CMU people (Jessica Hodgins and Abhinav Gupta), and they’re promising this isn’t a brain-drain. Both Hodgins and Abhinav will remain connected to the university. Stay tuned for further news on hiring for Facebook’s new lab.

Westmoreland tech company to help homeowners get affordable, cleaner energy

For years, businesses have been trying to create electricity at a reasonable price without harming the environment. But that goal has been elusive. Enter Caine Finnerty and WATT Fuel Cell Corporation, the company he founded in Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, to develop affordable, sustainable energy.

Finnerty found that if he could create fuel cells that combine additive manufacturing (basically 3D printing techniques) with propane or methane as the source of power to create electricity, he’d be able to change the game.

This year, WATT Fuel Cell has gone beyond proof of concept and is starting to prove itself in commercial applications. One of the largest manufacturers of recreational vehicles has announced a partnership with WATT to put its fuel cells into its RVs, and Peoples Gas has announced an upcoming test in residential homes in Western Pennsylvania.

For those who own a home using these fuel cells, the goal is to eventually get off the electrical grid and provide sustainable energy when solar power is not available, and not have to rely on community power. For those who travel in RVs, it will mean better access to affordable electricity while on the road.

The wider commercial and scientific community has also taken note of Finnerty’s successes at WATT. Last week, he was presented with the Innovation in Energy Award by the Carnegie Science Center. Next week, the company expects to announce that they have passed ETL certification by Intertek, which certifies compliance with North American safety standards. With that certification, the likelihood of wider acceptance of WATT’s technology becomes greater.