Amid spirited public discussion over the dangers and opportunities of artificial intelligence, Brigham Young University has added a machine learning degree to its undergraduate catalog.

Machine learning is a subfield of AI, in which computers use data to learn how to artificially mimic human behavior. It’s the technology behind ChatGPT, and BYU students will be able to major in it this coming fall.

BYU computer science faculty and students have been researching machine learning for a while now — professor Tony Martinez says he’s been working with it since he started at BYU 35 years ago. There’s also been a large amount of student interest in machine learning at the university.

Given machine learning’s strong presence at BYU, computer science professor David Wingate thought it was high time it had its own major.

“I think this degree will help focus and leverage faculty expertise for the benefit of the students,” Wingate said.

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The exploding popularity of technology like ChatGPT has pushed the machine learning degree to the surface, according to Martinez. Wingate also noted the inevitable importance of understanding the application of machine learning in the workplace.

BYU students Cameron Birrell and Jonathan Chelius talk as they and other students work in the Perception, Control and Cognition lab at BYU on Friday, June 30, 2023. BYU students will this fall be able to major in machine learning — the technology behind ChatGPT. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I have a strong desire to prepare students better, both to get great jobs in machine learning, but also to contribute to the discussion that society is having about the role of artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he said.

Martinez acknowledges the potential dangers of machine learning if left ungoverned, like its ability to create more sophisticated fake news and take humans’ jobs.

“As AI gets better, we’ll get to the point where it can do it better than us and cheaper than us, at which point it’ll be natural to replace us,” he said.

These kinds of risks will be a topic of discussion in machine learning courses, the same way the ethics of technology are already discussed in other computer science classes at BYU.

“I don’t necessarily think that AI is an existential risk, partly because I feel like the future is ours to determine,” Wingate said. “We get to choose how this technology will unfold, we get to choose how we’re going to use it.”

In the hands of BYU students, the professor believes AI can be used for good.

“I think the future is bright,” he said. I think that machine learning has the potential to improve multiple aspects of society, and I think that by sort of training BYU students in machine learning ... they could go off and they could use their skills and talents to make the world a better place.”

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Associate professor David Wingate sits with students Brianna White, left, and Davis Foster, right, as BYU students work in the Perception, Control and Cognition lab at BYU on Friday, June 30, 2023. BYU students will this fall be able to major in machine learning — the technology behind ChatGPT. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News