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Names from left to right: Yoram Singer, Cyril Zhang, Karan Singh, Naman Agarwal, Xinyi Chen, Jeff Dean, Elad Hazan, Yi Zhang, Brian Bullins. Photo courtesy of Professor Elad Hazan.

In his Jan. 6 opinion piece in The Daily Princetonian, Jon Ort ’21 underscores the importance of academic freedom that is the lifeblood of the University, but incorrectly suggests that Google’s recently announced plans to open an artificial intelligence research lab in Princeton undercuts that freedom.

In engineering and applied science, collaboration with industry is often an essential source of valuable research ideas that combine inherent fundamental interest with “real world” relevance. The resulting work, accordingly, often has considerable positive societal impact. Many faculty members collaborate closely with a wide range of companies, not only through sponsored research but also through sabbaticals and student internships. What is essential is that we craft agreements that protect our faculty members’ right to pursue whatever research they see fit and to publish their results at will. Clearly such arrangements require care, but there is a lot of room for mutual benefit. The Princeton-Google research agreement honors those principles.

The University and, more broadly, New Jersey, have both benefited tremendously from cross-fertilization between industry and academia, starting with the industries brought to the state by Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. The father of information theory, Claude Shannon, did the majority of his research just north of Princeton at AT&T Bell Labs. Princeton University’s computer science and electrical engineering departments benefited substantially from collaborations with Bell Labs, where several current faculty members worked previously. NEC Labs, Siemens Corporate Technology, SRI International, and Sarnoff Corporation are all located near Princeton, a proximity that benefits both the University and the companies.

It’s also important to clarify that much — probably most — of the research in AI and its associated areas, such as machine learning at the University, is happening outside of this particular collaboration with Google. Similarly, our world-leading strength in addressing issues at the intersection of artificial intelligence and ethics is not limited to activities at the Center for Information Technology Policy, as the writer incorrectly suggests. The writer noted that professor Rexford referred to work in this area as one of our distinctive pillars of strength; but “pillar” (support) is not to be confused with “silo” (isolation).

A hallmark of research and teaching at the University is that it fluidly integrates the most fundamental and interesting issues in natural and engineered systems — all in the service of humanity. Working with companies while preserving academic freedom is a critical way to fulfill that promise.

Emily Carter is Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment; Pablo Debenedetti is Dean for Research and the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering; Edward Felten is director of the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Robert E. Kahn Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs; Jennifer Rexford is Chair of the Department of Computer Science and the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor in Engineering; Elad Hazan and Yoram Singer are professors of computer science.

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