Record $2 million gift launches AI program at NCSSM

First-of-its-kind public high school Artificial Intelligence (AI) program aims to prepare North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics students to be leaders of the future workforce

PrecisionLender CEO Carl Ryden speaks to UNC System President Margaret Spellings before a press conference announcing a $2 million gift by Ryden to the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. (Photo Lauren Rose | The North State Journal)

DURHAM — A $2 million gift to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics from alumnus and entrepreneur Carl Ryden and his wife, Ashley — the largest private gift in the school’s history — will launch a program putting NCSSM on the leading-edge of public schools in America for learning about artificial intelligence and its place in society, NCSSM announced Thursday. The only high school program of its kind, the Ryden Program will share the stage with the few top AI university-level initiatives of similar scope which are currently at MIT, Cambridge University and Carnegie Mellon University.

“Artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly important in our lives,” Ryden said during a ceremony to launch the program. “Algorithms help us choose who to be friends with on social media, who to connect with on LinkedIn. They probably helped most of you get here today and will help you get home. They tell you what the right answer is on Google, whether it’s the right answer or not. AI is shaping our society in ways I don’t think we begin to understand … We have algorithms shaping history, algorithms shaping politics, algorithms shaping how we interact with one another and how we interact with the world around us.”

Sign at the N.C. School of Science and Math. (Photo: Lauren Rose | The North State Journal)

The Ryden Program for Innovation and Leadership in Artificial Intelligence launches with the goal not just to teach students how to design and use AI but to shape them as leaders who understand this powerful technology’s merits and the ethical considerations it raises. The Ryden Program will place a strong emphasis on ensuring students understand how to merge humanity with machine learning — and how to use AI to solve complex, macro problems affecting society in a way that focuses on “not only what we can do, but what we should do,” said Ryden.

“We absolutely need to build leaders who are capable of driving that future in a way that gets us to a better place as a society,” Ryden said. “And I think the kids here and the faculty here have earned and deserve the chance to shape that future. I am incredibly humbled I could be a help in that.”

Ryden, a member of the IBM team that developed the first Thinkpad laptop and co-founder and CEO of Cary, N.C.-based PrecisionLender, a provider of applied banking insights technology to commercial banks worldwide, credited NCSSM with setting him on that path from his roots in rural eastern North Carolina.

“The school fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life,” said Ryden, who has remained closely involved with NCSSM, teaching an entrepreneurship course every Monday night and helping to launch the school’s fabrication laboratory. “It’s not a debt I can ever repay. This school was an equity investor in my future, and whenever I have a chance to give back and pay it forward, I will take every opportunity to do so.”

The Ryden Program will have physical space at both NCSSM’s Durham, N.C., campus, as well as its Morganton, N.C., campus, which will open in 2021. Beyond the students who will have access to the AI curriculum and makerspace tools on campus, the curriculum will be available online, and its output will also be open-source, ensuring students and educators from around the globe can also benefit, a key component to the vision of the program, said Ryden.

Asked about the potential impact of the Rydens’ gift, NCSSM Chancellor Todd Roberts said, “Our institution has had over its history an amazing track record of producing people like Carl who have gone on to be successful entrepreneurs and who have worked to give back and helped to shape our state. The school was founded in 1980 for that very purpose to help lead North Carolina forward as it developed a new economy. Carl and Ashley’s gift is enabling us to create new possibilities for students not only at NCSSM but across North Carolina, beyond North Carolina, across the nation and the world.”