Intelligence by design: Farvardin believes in future of AI, and he has Stevens poised to be part of it

As the longtime head of Stevens Institute of Technology, Nariman Farvardin isn’t one for hyperbole or bluster.

Farvardin, the president of one of the top STEM universities in the country, lives in a world based on science, data and computation.

Nariman Farvardin. (Stevens Institute)

Understand that, before you read this:

“I’m a strong believer that artificial intelligence will do to businesses and to our economy what the internet did some 30 years ago, and what the transistor and integrated circuits did some 60 years ago,” Farvardin said.

“There’s a revolution that is taking place, and we want to be at the forefront of it.”

Of course, everyone has experienced some of the impacts of AI or machine learning. Driverless car technology certainly is out in front — and a cool concept. But for most of us, AI still is the obvious computer voice trying to route our customer service call or the algorithm on Netflix that picks movies it thinks we’ll like.

Farvardin is quick to point out how the AI revolution is much deeper than that. And that it is not coming — it’s already here.

Starting with those voice machines.


Voice recognition programs can illustrate progress, Farvardin said.

“When companies started having those answering services that were computer driven, the voice recognition system was absolutely terrible,” he said. “These days, even with my funny and strong accent, I can interact with Siri on my iPhone, with no problem at all.

“The reason for this is that the methodology adopted for speech recognition, or speaker identification, has changed completely — from the old ways of doing speech recognition to the new way of doing speech recognition.

“In the old days, we were trying to teach computers to try to replicate the waveform that we generate and use that waveform to make a conclusion as to what was said. Today, we don’t do anything fancy like that. We don’t need any approaches to understand human speech.”

Farvardin said today you need three things for anything you want to use AI for:

  1. And we certainly are gathering plenty of that.
  2. Powerful computers. Check.
  3. Advanced algorithms. Getting better every day.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of work on the development of algorithms and, in particular, what is called the artificial neural network, which is the key component of machine learning,” he said. “We’ve come to a point that machine learning is now becoming available as a commodity.

“So, anytime you have a problem that you want to solve, and for which you have an abundance of data available, you can solve that problem better than ever before.”


All of this takes us back to self-driving cars.

“This is a very desirable thing and relatively easy to do,” he said. “Tesla is already doing it.”

And getting better at it every day — because of data, Farvardin said

“I do have a Tesla, and I can tell you, the decisions made by the car are much better than the decisions that I make,” he said. “When I change lanes, I am very clumsy. But when I asked my car to do it, it does a much better job — much safer and much faster.

“And I guarantee you Tesla is collecting more data every day from hundreds of thousands of drivers that are on the roads every day. And, because of availability of more data, your algorithms become better. So, believe me, very soon we will have cars that certainly will drive better than your average driver. At some point, they will drive better than the best driver.”

The revolution doesn’t start and end on the road, though. Farvardin said he can picture a different future.

“Extend that out,” he said. “These days, reading an X-ray, or a computer tomography result, requires an experienced radiologist. Very soon, the power of artificial intelligence, with these sophisticated machine learning algorithms, will enable you to do the same thing better than an average radiologist. And soon thereafter, better than most of the better radiologists.

“And then extend this to financial services, transportation systems, health care systems … this is something that is likely to change the way we live.”


Farvardin and Stevens are not just watching all of this play out on the sidelines. They are active participants.

The school created the Stevens Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which Farvardin said is aiming to attract some of the most brilliant minds in the world.

Two groups of people, Farvardin said:

  1. Those with expertise that essentially is focused on what we call foundational AI, development of more sophisticated mathematical algorithms. These people are mostly mathematicians or computer scientists, he said.
  2. Those with expertise in application areas. These people are artificial intelligence experts, researchers, faculty members that work in everything from fintech to marketing to music to visual arts to health care and everything in between, he said.

“These people don’t work on development of new algorithms; they take the existing algorithms, and they apply them to different domains,” Farvardin said. “I’m exceedingly excited about this. Demand for experts in this area is unlimited. If you talk to any company that has any interest in technology, they’re constantly looking for people in machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

Especially in the field of financial services.


Fintech may be the ultimate example of the AI revolution.

Farvardin said it used to be fair to compare financial services to social science.

“Investment managers would try to look inside the company, they would interview the CEO and the CFO of the company, they would look at the balance sheet, and then they decided whether they want to invest in the company,” he said. “Fast forward 30 years to today.

“The most interesting opportunities — the most significant challenges in financial services — are math-related, cybersecurity-related, technology-related and high-performance-computing-related. Everybody knows that, if you want to succeed in that line of business, you need to be fully equipped with technology tools.

“It is their recognition of the importance of technology, mathematics, computing, data science, data visualization, as applied to finance, that is likely to drive this business forward.”

This summer, Stevens and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, were awarded the first-ever National Science Foundation grant to create an industry-university cooperative research center devoted specifically to financial technology and science.

The schools will create the Center for Research Toward Advancing Financial Technologies, which will work with the corporate sector to bring more AI, machine learning and high-tech to the booming field.

“We are immensely excited about this,” Farvardin said. “The combination of faculty expertise that we have in that area, the education programs that we have in that area, with the kind of companies that are within a stone’s throw of Stevens, makes for a very unusual set of opportunities.

“We will be developing and expanding our activities in the broad area of quantum devices, quantum communication and quantum computing. That’s another area of extremely important strategic interest for the United States.”


It’s unclear if this revolution will be televised. It is clear that it will come out collaborations with academia, business and government.

The Center for Research Toward Advancing Financial Technologies is partnering with companies that — through a membership fee — will gain a seat on the advisory board.

The corporate advisory board will work with the university professors who are leading the effort to identify the most pressing problems,” Farvardin said.

“The problems don’t come out of thin air, the problems come from the real experiences of these companies,” he said. “They come to us and say, ‘These are the most interesting problems that we have to deal with — come up with a solution.’ And then, the center will mobilize its intellectual firepower among the faculty, the researchers and, in particular, Ph.D. and other graduate students, to solve these problems.”

Farvardin rattles off the names of some large companies that already are part of the group: Goldman Sachs, UBS, Vanguard, Schwab and Bank of America, to name a few.

“But it’s not limited to big companies,” he said. “In fact, a number of much smaller organizations, regional banks, insurance companies — and a number of international companies — already have contacted us, and they want to join.”

Farvardin also points out that the Governor’s Office and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority are big partners, too.

“The governor is very excited about this, because he recognizes not only the importance of a New Jersey-based university being the lead institution in the in the nation, but the sector,” he said. “He is a former Goldman Sachs person, so he understands the importance of what we’re doing here. He’s very excited. And so is NJEDA.”

But maybe not as much as Farvardin.

Remember, no hyperbole, just a data-driven feeling.

“I believe AI is going to be one of the most important technological revolutions that we will witness in our lifetime,” he said.