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UC Irvine Develops Custom GenAI Platform ‘ZotGPT Chat’

While higher-ed instructors and administrators are growing more comfortable with using artificial intelligence to enhance instruction and accelerate research, concerns remain about the lack of data privacy that comes with using open-source tools like ChatGPT. To mitigate these concerns, the University of California at Irvine has developed and launched its own AI platform this spring to provide a more secure way for faculty and students to explore AI.

According to a news release this week, the custom generative AI platform, dubbed ZotGPT Chat, was officially deployed for faculty and staff in early January and will be accessible to students later this year. Tom Andriola, UC Irvine’s vice chancellor for data and information technology, told Government Technology that having in-house AI tools will give the university more control over personal and institutional data and files uploaded to the program. He said this ensures that third-party vendors cannot use the university’s data to train their models, adding that most AI tools on the market today have no such safeguards.

“We very much took a privacy protection approach in how we rolled out the initial version of ZotGPT,” he said. “We did this to make sure [AI is used] in a way that’s protecting privacy, that’s tactical and responsible.”

According to Andriola, ZotGPT Chat is mobile friendly and has voice-chat capabilities, with image generation and custom chatbots on the way that will use departmental data or websites, among other features. He said he hopes that the rollout of the platform will allow more students and faculty to experiment with using AI in coursework and research, adding that faculty and staff will soon be able to integrate ZotGPT Chat with other software programs.

“As a public institution, we strive to raise all boats, and we think that making these tools available provides a level of equity for all students to be able to take advantage of these advances,” he said, noting that the university is engaged in a campus-wide education campaign to boost AI literacy among faculty and staff.

In terms of research benefits, UC Irvine CIO Errol Arkilic said in a public statement that ZotGPT Chat will allow researchers to “cost-effectively run comprehensive experiments across a wide range of applications.”

“ZotGPT Chat gives UC Irvine researchers a powerful platform to explore the potential of generative AI in ways that protect the integrity of our data while simultaneously providing us access to ‘industrial-strength’ tools,” he said.

The launch of ZotGPT Chat follows other universities’ recent efforts to develop their own in-house AI tools, such as at the University of California at San Diego, which developed a large language model called TritonGPT that can generate and edit course content, among other functions. The University of Michigan also developed its own suite of new generative AI tools with similar functions and privacy protection considerations in mind.

Andriola said that by developing their own in-house AI tools specific to their needs, universities can leverage the power of AI more safely while ensuring equitable access to it as it becomes increasingly ubiquitous across higher education.

“We will see people become more productive in their work because they will be able to find faster ways to do things, or to reduce the cognitive load of things that take a lot of time,” Andriola said. “We think it’s important because these things are proliferating. We think managing the proliferation by having your own tools and your own interfaces allows you to get to value more quickly.”

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.

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