Caltech and Amazon Web Services Launch Collaboration

Researchers from Caltech and Amazon Web Services, an company, are collaborating in Pasadena to foster a relationship that could change the landscape of artificial intelligence (AI) research in Southern California

AWS offers comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud computing services. Its Pasadena-based staff researchers, some of whom are temporarily being hosted on campus, are working to improve the AI and machine-learning cloud services offered by AWS. They will move off campus by the end of the academic year but remain in Pasadena, bolstering a community that is already home to many engineers and scientists, thanks to Caltech, JPL, and a growing number of startup companies.

One of Caltech’s strengths has long been its small size, which encourages interdisciplinary research. But the Institute’s lean nature can present a challenge when it comes to rapidly growing fields like AI and machine learning, says Pietro Perona , Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering and one of the architects of the new Caltech-AWS collaboration.

"Because we stay small, we’re only able to hire a select few faculty members in any given area," says Perona, who is on leave from Caltech and is currently a researcher at AWS. "Also, our graduate programs train extraordinarily talented future researchers, who mostly leave Pasadena after completing their PhD." An industry research center located nearby, however, can help retain talent locally, he says. "Together, we can build a critical mass of machine-learning and AI researchers right here in Pasadena," he says.

Primarily affiliated with Caltech via the Computing and Mathematical Sciences Department of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, AWS will provide summer internships for Caltech students and students of other top universities, job opportunities for alumni, and the potential for collaborations between Caltech and AWS researchers. AWS is also contributing funding for Caltech projects and a pipeline for marketable research. AWS has already committed $2.5 million to Caltech for graduate student fellowships and cloud-computing credits in order to seed AI innovations. 

"Most importantly, their location in Pasadena means that Caltech’s faculty can remain small, but will have high-quality collaborators right next door," Perona says. "That helps Caltech to attract top young faculty." The benefits for AWS include the ability to recruit rising talent from the student pool and foster collaborations with top academics in the field. The setup is analogous to the Google Labs at MIT and ETH Zurich, or the proximity of Silicon Valley to Stanford University, and also harkens back to the role that Caltech played in jump-starting Southern California’s aerospace industry in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

Pasadena will host part of the AWS Computer Vision Science team, which is creating new algorithms to infer properties of the physical world from images. Such algorithms are fundamental to computer vision and machine-learning applications. These algorithms will be used to improve AWS’s current services aimed at detecting and recognizing objects and events in images and video, and will also be used to develop new services that make computer-vision and machine-learning tools available to developers, according to AWS.

AWS currently has more than a dozen staff members hosted at Caltech, including Perona. After moving off-campus, the office is expected to grow to include a number of additional positions including postdoctoral researchers who are looking for industry-related research experience before taking academic positions. 

"Silicon Valley is great," Perona says. "But I think we’re on our way to the critical mass of engineers, scientists, and industry leaders that Pasadena needs to become a major hub in connecting science with technology."

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