Technology powerhouse of the future
A $1.5 million gift from Lowe’s will help advance UNC Charlotte’s artificial intelligence and machine learning expertise.
A $1.5 million gift from Lowe’s will help advance UNC Charlotte’s artificial intelligence and machine learning expertise.
A commitment to research
In the century since it opened its first store in North Wilkesboro, Lowe’s — now a global Fortune 50 company — has shown a fervent and steadfast commitment to serving its communities, especially in its hometown region.
That impassioned support will extend to UNC Charlotte through a new $1.5 million gift to the University’s College of Computing and Informatics (CCI). This donation will strengthen UNC Charlotte’s position as a leading technology hub and talent provider for Lowe’s, the Charlotte region and beyond.
“Lowe’s entire mission is that we are home to any possibility, which works so well with renowned academic institutions like UNC Charlotte,” said Seemantini Godbole, executive vice president and chief information officer at Lowe’s. “Because CCI is the top producer of computer scientists in the region, it was clear that CCI is a great partner for us as we continue to establish ourselves as a tech player.”
The gift from Lowe’s will propel UNC Charlotte’s technology research forward by establishing the Lowe’s Endowed Chair in Computer Science, enabling the University to recruit a nationally recognized teacher, scholar and computer science leader whose research focuses on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
From smart home hubs to voice-activated digital assistants, AI and similar technologies provide tremendous opportunities to augment human capabilities.
“We are so thankful to Lowe’s for its continued commitment to strengthening research and creative expression across our University,” said Fatma Mili, dean of the College of Computing and Informatics. “This partnership is aligned with the shared commitment between UNC Charlotte and Lowe’s to make a significant impact through the continued innovation of our faculty and students and the education of the next generation of computer scientists.”
The Lowe’s gift will also establish the Lowe’s Technology Innovation Fund, which will provide $50,000 annually to support innovative research in these areas, and the donation will directly support the UNC Charlotte CCI Fund.
Now, one of the major obstacles that might have prevented CCI students, faculty and staff from being able to focus solely on innovation — financial hurdles — will be reduced.
The two-story, central atrium in Woodward Hall – home to CCI – will be named to honor Lowe’s.
The partnership between Lowe’s and CCI has also led to the development of a series of Lowe’s Technology Day seminars to be hosted each semester at CCI.
“I am always amazed by how much change we can effect when we start with an alignment of values and passions,” said Mili. “This all started with a conversation about what we can do to use artificial intelligence for the betterment of society and the reduction of inequity.”
During the inaugural Lowe’s Technology Day on April 9, Seemantini Godbole, executive vice president and chief information officer at Lowe’s, and Fatma Mili, dean of the College of Computing and Informatics, discussed the latest advances being developed by the College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) and Lowe’s respectively. This event was hosted in partnership between CCI and Lowe’s Companies Inc.
The first Lowe’s Technology Day seminar, an interactive virtual conference on April 9, featured Godbole and Mili discussing the latest advances in development by CCI and Lowe’s. A broader panel discussed the outlook on employment and post-COVID technology trends with Lowe’s executives, including David Shoop, senior vice president of technology stores and corporate services; Neelima Sharma, senior vice president of technology ecommerce, marketing and merchandising; and B.K. Shepard, vice president of technology infrastructure and operations.
“Events like this allow students to get a peek inside a corporation, which can help them decide on their future career direction,” said CCI Associate Professor Mohamed Shehab. “For faculty, the engagement can result in grants and collaborations on projects with the partners. It was also very interesting to learn how Lowe’s has evolved into a technology company and how technology enabled it to succeed during the pandemic.”
CCI: BY THE NUMBERS
LEADERS IN THE TECH FIELD: INNOVATIVE RESEARCH WITHIN CCI
CCI leads transformational research through its undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs in computer science, bioinformatics and genomics, cybersecurity, data science and business analytics, health informatics, and software and information systems.
Within CCI, faculty also perform AI research across a vast spectrum of perspectives, leveraging innovative computing hardware informed by and optimized for the fundamental principles and algorithms of AI.
Key AI Research Areas
CCI faculty researchers are active in the science of getting computers to learn and act without specifically being programmed. Machine learning is largely responsible for all recommendation systems utilized by familiar companies which include Netflix, Amazon, Google, Alexa, Lowe’s, and any others where recommendations based on previous data are delivered.
An autonomous agent — think of a self-driving car or unmanned drone — must perceive its environment using computer vision to process data and complete tasks more efficiently and accurately than humans can. Our faculty have expertise in object tracking, robot motion planning and control, multiple robot coordination and embedded AI. CCI’s work in autonomous systems has been applied to challenges as varied as crash-scene reconstruction and the study of beach erosion.
ETHICAL, EXPLAINABLE AND TRUSTWORTHY AI
As AI expands into every corner of our lives, the risks of unethical or unfair AI, subject to biases and discrimination, grow along with it. No matter how large the data set, systems based on data generated and analyzed by humans are subject to our biases, both intended and unconscious. For example, facial recognition software has been roundly criticised for its inaccuracy as it relates to racial variations. A 2018 study published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that some facial analysis algorithms misclassified Black women nearly 35 percent of the time. CCI is studying and developing ethical AI tools to ensure greater fairness and mitigate the impact of bias and unintended consequences in the application of what we create.
While fully automated processes have a place in making our world easier to navigate, those systems generally lack any sense of nuance or context. To address that, CCI’s work in human-assistive AI supports the ability of humans to make better and faster decisions by using human inputs, as well as existing data, to reach conclusions. The technology acts as a guide, but final outcomes are determined by the user. Being applied by emergency-response agencies, human-assistive AI groups 911 calls by theme for dispatchers to aid in making better, quicker decisions about the kind of response required.
Demands for greater speed and accuracy in AI have led to a merging of artificial intelligence and high-performance computing. CCI’s research faculty are at the forefront of this dynamic field, designing more powerful computer systems to enable faster and more powerful AI. High performance AI increases efficiency and creates new applications for AI, which include weather prediction, economic forecasting and personalized medicine. Mastercard, for example, is leveraging high-performance AI to process massive data sets at lightning speed to identify and prevent fraudulent transactions.
Faculty utilize these advances to address problems within a range of domains, including computing infrastructure, cybersecurity, climate change, health care, smart cities, personalized education and defense. Research innovations have been supported by over $40 million in external funding over the last 5 years, from a variety of federal funding agencies along with support from regional partnerships in energy, transportation and health.
LOWE’S PIPELINE TO SUCCESS FOR CCI ALUMNI
The fastest-growing college in the UNC System, the largest computing college in North Carolina and one of the largest computing colleges in the nation, CCI has more than 7,400 alumni.
Many of those talented graduates find their way to Lowe’s, and if Godbole has her wish, many more will do so in the future.
“I really hope that I get to work with some of you,” Godbole said, addressing student attendees at Lowe’s Technology Day. “Whether it’s when you visit our Lowe’s office or when we come here to campus, perhaps when we are able to be physically doing joint research. Hopefully, some — or many — of you will become Lowe’s associates. That would be fantastic.”
To date, more than 660 UNC Charlotte alumni are employed with the home improvement company. Madlen Ivanova, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at CCI (’16, ’17, ’22), is now the senior manager of data science at Lowe’s. In her current role, she manages a team of 17 data science engineers charged with decreasing friction on the Lowe’s website.
“UNC Charlotte and CCI prepared me in many ways. The faculty members really inspired me to learn and develop myself. I stay in touch with some of them even today. Every class offered a new experience and taught me important concepts that I use every day.”
Four years ago, Ivanova established the University’s Women in Data Science (WiDS) initiative as part of the worldwide WiDS initiative. She has been selected and served as a WIDS ambassador for Charlotte since 2018.
This March, Lowe’s served as the title sponsor for the fourth year of the WiDS Charlotte Conference, which aimed to inspire, educate and engage current and future data scientists in the Carolinas, regardless of gender, and to support women in the field by providing training, networking and mentoring opportunities.
Sharma was a featured speaker and was included on the “Inspiring and Leading Through Change” panel, along with Ivanova.
“The University plays a big role on many levels,” said Ivanova. “It has built great relationships with both big and small Charlotte companies and leads in terms of social responsibility.”
At the 2021 Women in Data Science (WiDS) Charlotte Conference, UNC Charlotte alumna Madlen Ivanova ’16, ’17, ’22 and Neelima Sharma, senior vice president of technology ecommerce, marketing and merchandising at Lowe’s, served on the “Inspiring and Leading Through Change” panel where they discussed the role that data science has played in their personal journeys. The conference was sponsored by the UNC Charlotte School of Data Science and Lowe’s.
A CONTINUATION OF SUPPORT
A longstanding partnership with UNC Charlotte and CCI’s broad expertise and large talent pool are among the reasons Lowe’s selected the Charlotte region for the Lowe’s Tech Hub and its expanded technology presence.
Research is fundamental to UNC Charlotte’s mission. New knowledge and innovative partnerships with industry leaders help us shape the future of the University, contribute to the economic growth of the region, and change the world.
Since 2013, Lowe’s has been a partner for CCI’s Business Partner program. The relationships and support provided by the members of the Business Partner program contribute greatly to CCI’s continued growth in emerging technologies, while providing access to real-world contacts and experiences for students. As a gold sponsor of CCI’s long-standing Cybersecurity Symposium, Lowe’s has empowered CCI’s ability to invite world-class speakers to campus to discuss cutting-edge security issues and best practices regarding the mitigation of security risks for businesses.
“I’m so excited that we are taking our partnership with UNC Charlotte to its next natural step,” said Godbole.
“In addition to its more tangible elements, this partnership opens up lots of possibilities for doing joint research and expanding equity, inclusivity and diversity in the fields of AI and machine learning.”