Conference to Focus on AI in Arkansas


Conference to Focus on AI in Arkansas

The sixth annual Arkansas Bioinformatics Consortium conference is set for Feb. 10-11 at the Wyndham Riverfront in North Little Rock. Its theme is “Artificial Intelligence in Arkansas.”

AR-BIC is “an annual event, but it’s meant to be a collaborative community of research scientists and practitioners in this field of bioinformatics,” said Bryan Barnhouse, COO of the Arkansas Research Alliance.

ARA, headquartered in Conway, is the lead organizer of the conference, and the Food & Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson County is a major sponsor, according to Jeremy Harper, ARA's director of communications.

Barnhouse said conference registration is free and complementary lodging is available, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the FDA and sponsorships that cover what remains of its $40,000-$50,000 budget.

The conference will be held from 1-7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 and from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Feb. 11.

AR-BIC was born out of a realization by the NCTR’s Division of Bioinformatics & Biostatistics and others that “we have a real developing, emerging competency in bioinformatics here in the state” and it needed to be nurtured, Barnhouse said. The objectives of AR-BIC, he said, are to:

  • Strengthen Arkansas’ ability to compete nationally and internationally for research funding;
  • Enable collaboration in research across different organizations, universities and other institutions in the state;
  • Build a pipeline of education and training by molding university curricula to support bioinformatics careers; and
  • Support economic growth in the state by increasing job opportunities.

The first conference attracted 90 attendees, and attendance has been growing since then, Barnhouse said. More than 200 attended the 2019 conference.

Harper said the AR-BIC governing board oversees the conference. The board includes representatives from Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the NCTR and ARA. ARA President and CEO Jerry Adams chairs it.

Entities represented on the board provide most of the conference’s speakers.

Highlights of the 2020 conference include a new panel composed of ARA Academy scholars and fellows and a theme that is on point, Barnhouse said.

“This [upcoming] year is on AI, and there’s just been an explosion of growth around AI,” he said. “The computational requirements of personalized medicine alone, not to mention things like driverless cars and all that, … make it a pretty strategic theme.”

Barnhouse also said the FDA, a major sponsor, will need AI to do its job, which is to protect human health.

In addition, the topic is timely, he said, because ARA fellow Xiuzhen Huang of A-State recently founded the Arkansas AI-Campus. It is a virtual statewide interactive training program seven institutions are participating in. The program allows researchers to work with global and national experts in machine learning, artificial intelligence and deep learning. Deep learning is the practice of imitating the workings of the human brain in processing data and creating patterns for use in decision-making.

(Correction: In a previous version of this article, most of the information was incorrectly attributed to Jeremy Harper instead of to Bryan Barnhouse. We have corrected the error.)