New Jersey governor and Princeton president tout plans for AI hub

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As US states race to take advantage of the generative AI boom, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber announced plans today to establish a new AI hub that will bring together AI researchers, industry leaders, and startups, in collaboration with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA).

In an exclusive interview with VentureBeat, Governor Murphy and President Eisgruber discussed the initiative, which will advance research and development, house dedicated accelerator space, advance the use of ethical AI, and promote workforce development — including AI skills training for over 61,000 state employees.

“It’s probably the most exciting project that I’m aware of on the state side since I’ve been governor,” said Murphy, who took office in 2018. When asked whether the project could keep up with the pace of AI developments, he added that “the way we’re doing this is to shine a light on the fact that we’re doing it — it’s sort of a Kevin Costner ‘if you build it, they will come.’”

Princeton University AI hub comes at a ‘pivotal moment’

The AI hub news follows the launch of New Jersey’s State Artificial Intelligence Task Force in October, while in November the state announced a new policy promoting the responsible use of AI by state employees. Murphy called this a “three-legged stool” approach — one leg is around economic development, a second is around AI implications including regulatory responsibility, and the third is around training of the state workforce and pursuing better delivery of government services to state residents.

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Eisgruber said the AI hub comes at a “pivotal moment“ to help make New Jersey an AI leader in jobs and research. “Princeton University was already starting to invest here and this will help us to invest even more aggressively around this,” he said. For example, in October, Princeton announced a Language and Intelligence Initiative (PLI) focused on large language models, and named Sanjeev Arora, a professor of computer ccience and a specialist in theoretical computer science and machine learning, as PLI’s first director.

In addition, Princeton has a long history in AI research — from Alan Turing, considered the father of computer science, who earned a Ph.D. in 1938; to Stanford’s Fei-Fei Li, who earned an undergraduate degree in 1999 and served as an assistant professor from 2007-2009; Princeton provost Jennifer Rexford, who joined the university’s department of computer science in 2005 after many years as a researcher New Jersey’s Bell Labs; and “AI Snake Oil” authors Arvind Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor.

But the AI hub “will be a bigger initiative and one that we hope that will make New Jersey and this particular hub a recognized leader in the field,” Eisgruber explained. “This is a front burner for us…we expect to be pushing the accelerator.”

A focus on AI talent

The current AI boom is highly concentrated — A Brookings 2021 analysis of the “geography of AI” called the San Francisco Bay Area a “superstar” region, while 35 of the companies on the 2023 Forbes AI 50 are California-based.

​​At a dinner last year with AI industry leaders in California’s Bay Area, Murphy asked why AI companies were based there. “The singular answer was talent,” he said. “It wasn’t that got status from California or the tax rate or certain infrastructure. It was talent, talent, talent — and I walked away from that dinner sort of transformed, because we’ve got as much talent, particularly in the STEM space, as anyplace in the world, in particular when you lead with Princeton.” Murphy explained that when he followed up by asking whether New Jersey had a shot at becoming the East Coast AI hub, “not one person said you’re off base — whether or not we can actually execute on all this, time will tell. But we start with the raw material that I think no other state, no other university, really brings to the table.”

Eisgruber said that Princeton, which has also invested in public-private AI partnerships such as its Google AI Lab in 2019, is keen to collaborate across the broader economy of New Jersey, which is a leader in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. “We need to work more with the regional ecosystem around us and one of the things that is just exciting about this hub is an opportunity for us to do that,” he said.

Governor Murphy emphasized that after launch, the plans for the hub as far as how it will evolve will be fluid — but that time was of the essence in the fast-paced world of AI. “I don’t think we’re going to let a lot of grass grow given the pace of development here.”

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Sharon Goldman