Phebe Vayanos Named Co-Director of USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society

| August 22, 2023

Vayanos leverages operations research and artificial intelligence to help underserved and marginalized communities.

New CAIS Co-Director Phebe Vayanos was also recently announced as Viterbi Early Career Chair in Engineering.

New CAIS Co-Director Phebe Vayanos was also recently announced as Viterbi Early Career Chair in Engineering.

Phebe Vayanos is passionate about harnessing artificial intelligence and operations research to solve critical challenges and improve the world. Vayanos’ work tackles the planet’s most urgent crises, from homelessness in Los Angeles to protecting biodiversity in South America’s vulnerable rainforests.

Vayanos, an associate professor in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, will now be in an ideal position to further her research vision as she takes on the role of co-director of USC’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society (CAIS).

CAIS began in 2016 as a cross-disciplinary partnership between USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and USC Viterbi School of Engineering, with the ambitious vision of leveraging innovative AI solutions to society’s most pressing problems. It was one of the first research centers of its kind in the world. Vayanos will lead CAIS, alongside her co-directors Associate Professor of Computer Science Bistra Dilkina and Professor of Social Work Eric Rice.

CAIS draws on a wealth of faculty expertise from across USC and partner institutions, with research spanning homelessness, suicide prevention, substance abuse treatment and prevention, conservation and sustainability, public health, disaster planning, and more.

Vayanos, who has been working with CAIS since its inception, said she was very excited to take on the co-director role.

“I’ve very much thought of CAIS like my baby, and I’ve felt very attached to both my collaborators and the research mission,” Vayanos said. “Now, being able to step up as co-director, I feel like I can do more to advance this mission. It’s a real honor to be in this position.”

Rice added: “Phebe has been a leader at CAIS since its very beginning. We are thrilled to see her formally take on the role of co-director.”

A vision for USC to lead national research solutions for homelessness

Vayanos said that one of her key priorities is to expand CAIS’ capacity around AI solutions to resource allocation for those experiencing homelessness.

Vayanos and her collaborators have been working closely with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to design better tools to prioritize and allocate people into scarce housing and match them to available resources. A recent project developed an algorithm to help youth successfully exit homelessness while also reducing racial disparity in housing allocation.

“It’s a problem near and dear to my heart to try and do everything in my power to address inequities in homelessness. Being able to do so by doing something I like — through AI and operations research — is really my passion,” Vayanos said.

“One of the key things I want to do as co-director is to attract more faculty doing homelessness research at USC to the center, to grow this research area, and have CAIS become a hub for AI-driven homelessness research.”

Vayanos added that she also aimed to grow the center’s footprint in homelessness research and solutions by building more partnerships with government agencies, nonprofit organizations and policymakers. She said she plans to build connections with housing authorities outside of LA, including in Seattle, where she would be located on sabbatical. Other upcoming plans will include a conference at USC Capital Campus in Washington, D.C., to highlight the latest research in the field and help shape policy.  

Before joining USC in 2015, Vayanos was a lecturer in the Operations Research and Statistics Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a postdoctoral research associate in the Operations Research Center at MIT.

Vayanos holds a Viterbi Early Career Chair in Engineering. In 2021, she received the prestigious NSF CAREER Award  for her homelessness research.

She is also a recipient of the USC Viterbi Junior Research Award, and in 2020 was awarded the INFORMS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Ambassador Program Award for a project to bring STEM education to high school students in underserved communities. This Fall, she will be speaking at TED AI 2023, as part of a full day of TED Talks to explore the transformative power of artificial intelligence and its impact on our civilization, industries, institutions, communities and cultures.

Vayanos was a member of the INFORMS AI Strategy Advisory Committee and was recently elected Chair of the Committee on Stochastic Programming (COSP), the governing body of the Stochastic Programming Society. She is an associate editor for Computational Management Science and Operations Research Letters.

Vayanos holds a Ph.D. in Operations Research and a Master of Engineering in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, both from Imperial College London.

Published on August 22nd, 2023

Last updated on August 22nd, 2023

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