The press calls to his office Tuesday were voluminous, the crowds of pedestrians on campus numerous. The president of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Joel Bloom, could not have been happier. The university’s expansive new $102 million Wellness and Events Center is serving as the base for an international sci-tech meeting, the VOICE Summit, for three days this week. The event, drawing positive press coverage and more than 2,400 attendees, is what Bloom has been building toward since he assumed his post in 2011. Tapinto Newark’s science and technology correspondent, Kitta MacPherson, spoke with Bloom Tuesday about the event and recent successes at the 137-year-old Newark institution. The questions and answers have been slightly edited for brevity.
Q. Why is the Voice Summit happening at NJIT in Newark?:
A. Bloom: It's happening here because we built the Wellness and Event Center. We built (it) with the intention of hosting science-technology conferences. The WEC was conceived because we needed it. Our old gym was built in 1965 when we had 4,000 students. Today, we have 11,600 students and, at some point, we realized we needed a new gym – students were complaining. But this is a scientific and technological university – I didn’t want to build a building that was just a gym. A multi-purpose building seemed to make more sense. I had to convince a lot of people. Of the WEC’s 220,000 square feet, only 30 percent is dedicated to athletics. The rest of it is built for recreation, socializing, studying, and as a conference center. VOICE is the third conference to be held at the WEC and the first international conference to be held there.
Q. Is the subject matter of the summit – voice first technologies, artificial intelligence, robotics – a good intellectual fit for this place?
A. Bloom: We in the university are working in all the pertinent areas – voice recognition, computing, cybersecurity, human-computer interaction. Human-computer interaction has been at NJIT since 1990. It started as a tiny little department. Few were interested in it. Now, it’s hot again! The way I think about the advantages of voice technology is this – if you are key-stroking, the best most people can do is type 50 words a minute. If you speak, you are moving at 140 words a minute. Speed is important. As an economist, I pay attention to financial news and the increase in sales for voice technologies is evident. Major advances in voice recognition and machine learning mean that the accuracy by which our voices can be understood is high, about 95 percent accurate. One economic commentator I listened to on the radio said last week that most voice technology firms are working secretly on the integration of voice into robots. The challenge is integrating the various hardware and software products we have out there.
Q. What does it say about NJIT that you are hosting this event?
A. Bloom: That other people have realized how good we are.
Q. There are new buildings and construction crews all over campus. What is going on?
A. Bloom: What you are seeing is the product of much effort by many people. (Former NJIT President) Saul Fenster started it. I’ve been here for quite a while but, shortly after I became president in 2011, New Jersey voters approved a bond issue allocating $1.3 billion in facilities for higher education. We had to compete for that bond money. The largest state-funded project, $86 million, was devoted to transforming the old Central High building. It’s completely renovated, preserving its Art Deco look but filled with science labs for this century. Part of that will be dedicated to integrating efforts by biologists and engineers. There are many other projects underway funded by a host of sources – including federal, state, corporate, and private.
Q. What are the values you inculcate among the University’s faculty, staff, and students?
A. Bloom: This University is about working in the community and improving the quality of life for all. Our students know that. Last year, they performed 52,000 hours of community service, almost all of it for community-based organizations. These kids, they can do software development, they can do scheduling, they can design websites. They work in the Newark schools and help tutor students. They led beautification programs in the city this summer and worked in pre-college programs. We are committed to the city.
Q. What is the role of a modern public polytechnic university?
A. Bloom: Our role is to have a great relationship with the community in which we reside and to work on economic development. In October, we will be hosting, along with the city, the National Metrolabs Conference – 30 mayors and 50 universities working together to improve the quality of life in their municipalities.
With respect to economic development, we have 300-plus regular faculty and another 100 special faculty and lecturers here. They think about this stuff, they live this stuff. It’s their career. There are only 32 polytechnics in the country. We are always thinking of ways to innovate, improve, and help people. If you take our three business incubator spaces, for example, you’ll see the incubator companies last year hired 800 people, 300 of them NJIT students. They did about $100 million in business and brought in $150 million in third-party funding. And we did it first. Ours is the oldest and largest incubator in the state. It was started in 1989.