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AI for Business Major Kicks Off at Marshall and Viterbi

AI for Business Major Kicks Off at Marshall and Viterbi

The program’s inaugural cohort of 47 students has inspired and impressed.

12.07.23
Kimon Drakopoulos headshot

The first cohort of the AI for Business Major

[USC Photo]

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Professor KIMON DRAKOPOULOS has been at USC Marshall since 2016, but he’s never had an experience quite like this one. In the last three months, 47 first-year students started their coursework in the new AI FOR BUSINESS (BUAI) joint degree offered by Marshall and the USC VITERBI SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING, and they’ve completely exceeded Drakopoulos’s expectations.

“I have met exceptional individuals at Marshall, but I’ve never met a whole group where I find everyone fantastic. That’s a new one for me,” Drakopoulos said.

The program was first conceived three years ago by Senior Vice Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Data Sciences and Operations RAMAN RANDHAWA. Randhawa envisioned the program as a cross between the practical implementation of a business degree and the technical learning of computer science and artificial intelligence. With a specialized curriculum across Marshall and Viterbi, students would learn essential skills for a rapidly evolving market.

“There was a SURVEY with the Fortune 500 CEOs and they were asked what was the highest priority for the next decade. Predictive analytics was at the top of it,” Randhawa said.

Randhawa wanted these Marshall-Viterbi students to be well-rounded in every component of AI, from algorithms and applications to ethical concerns. He had no idea how relevant his vision would become. This development of BUAI came years before ChatGPT and the generative AI explosion. The program, perhaps once an esoteric approach to business analytics, was now poignant and timely.

Back in 2020, he approached Drakopoulos to serve as the program’s inaugural director. His blend of academic credibility and real-world success represented the core philosophy behind the degree.

Not only did the professor and data scientist graduate with a PhD from MIT, but in 2020, he and his colleagues also created an algorithm-based system for the Greek government called “EVA.” The program helped the Greek officials identify nearly double the amount of positive Covid cases they would have detected otherwise while freeing up thousands of valuable tests for the rest of the country. In recognition of his accomplishments, THE PRIME MINISTER APPOINTED DRAKOPOULOS to Greece’s first-ever AI advisory committee.

Like Randhawa, Drakopoulos views BUAI as a means to marry technical fluency with practical applications. He’s witnessed the gap between these areas first-hand.

“I was working with policymakers — not only in Greece but talking to people in the European Union,” Drakopoulos said. “There was this huge disconnect between technical people who write the code, implement or design the algorithms, and the people who are asked to adopt them. And that disconnect was not a matter of intelligence. It was a matter of technical maturity and understanding the main concepts behind AI.”

The AI for Business major strives to provide a unique but essential expertise for students. As generative AI and predictive analytics encompasses industries, Drakopoulos believes the market may sway away from traditional methods of judging experience.

“Right now, we tend to label ourselves with titles,” Drakopoulos said, referencing a lecture he recently attended. “But this will convert to: who you are professionally is going be a list of skills.”

To be honest, when I was doing my research, I didn't really see any other majors like [BUAI]. I saw majors that maybe combined CS and Business or other technical aspects in business, but they felt like double majors and not really a cohesive major.

— Senya Wong

BUAI ‘27

Program graduates certainly won’t lack relevant skills. Students are taking courses that span Viterbi, Marshall, and everything in between.

“This is a serious degree which requires serious computer science course work, serious data science coursework, serious business coursework, and then we bring that all together,” Randhawa said.

To develop this ground-breaking new joint program, Drakopoulos and Randhawa collaborated with YOLANDA GIL, who serves as Viterbi’s Director of New Initiatives in AI and Data Science and Research Professor of Computer Science and Spatial Sciences. Together, they explored how to intertwine Viterbi technical courses with Marshall business courses.

Subsequently, Viterbi’s Executive Vice Dean and Professor of Computer Science GAURAV SUKHATME, and Vice Dean for Academic Programs and Professor of Civil Engineering, ERIK JOHNSON, worked with Marshall to ensure the program rigor would challenge the exceptional students admitted to this first BUAI cohort.

Drakopoulos, a seasoned educator, has taught for years prior to this semester, but this new group caught him off guard. The first-year Trojans were eager, excited, and extremely capable. Most of all, Drakopoulos noticed a rare optimism in them.

“This degree is meant to be attractive for people who want to take these systems and bring them to the real world and make them, implement them, and change people’s lives. I think we have succeeded in attracting that type of people,” Drakopoulos said.

Senya Wong is one of these go-getters. Just a year ago, the first-year student was searching for a program that married Business and STEM. Marshall’s program stood out.

“To be honest, when I was doing my research, I didn’t really see any other majors like [BUAI]. I saw majors that maybe combined CS and Business or other technical aspects in business, but they felt like double majors and not really a cohesive major,” Wong said.

Marshall and Viterbi, on the other hand, provided a more appealing curriculum, said Wong:

“[Marshall and Viterbi] did a really good job. When you are in this major, all of the learning and classes feel very cohesive and you can kind of see how all the courses work together with each other to give you that foundation that you need for AI and Business.”

This new major weaves together Marshall business coursework with data science courses from both Marshall and Viterbi, in addition to Viterbi courses in computer programming, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and AI ethics. The major is all tied together with the introductory AI for Business Freshman Academy (BUAD 112) class this first semester and capstone courses they will take to integrate what they learn during their BUAI program.

“This program truly forms a transdisciplinary approach to AI as applied to business applications,” Johnson said, “which indeed ties in with Viterbi’s efforts to infuse these powerful topics of AI and machine learning across disciplines.”

Sukhatme echoes Johnson’s sentiments:

“The program is a wonderful illustration of our focus on computing and digital fluency for all our students — key tenets of the recently announced USC FRONTIERS OF COMPUTING MOONSHOT,” Sukhatme said.

Each week, Drakopoulos opens his door for more than 20 office hours. It’s not just about answering technical questions or assisting with coursework though.

“I think my office hours are mostly for emotional support,” Drakopoulos said.

According to Wong, Drakopoulos consistently provides new opportunities for his students to get out of their dorms and socialize with each other — an essential component of any freshman’s experience.

“He hosted this one thing for us a couple of weeks back where he bought a bunch of pizza,” said Wong. “And surprising enough, a bunch of us showed up, and we spent like an hour or two just chatting about a bunch of random things. It was so cool.”

Drakopoulos continues to give more of his time to the new cohort — it’s a labor of love. After all, they’re not just impressing him; they’re inspiring.

“I just had a baby ten months ago. Every student that I’m meeting, I hope my daughter is going to be like them,” Drakopoulos said.

Transfer requests into the program are already landing on Randhawa’s desk as demand for AI-centered education grows around the country. At Marshall and Viterbi, the work has already begun.