Reflecting back on 2020, one of the things that fueled me is great conversations. This past fall, I was incredibly fortunate to speak with some of the world’s leading AI researchers as the host of a new podcast series called AI4Society Dialogues. Produced on behalf of AI4Society, a signature research area at the University of Alberta, and the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS), the podcast showcases a range of incredibly talented researchers and is informed by this question:
How will AI shape society and how will society shape AI?
Making this show was like an extension of my master’s degree. I did a lot of reading and learning in order to come prepared to speak about AI in a range of contexts. I’m curious about pretty much everything, which definitely helped, but there was still a lot of background work needed to be done. What struck me most about making this show, is that AI really will inform and touch every area of our lives. I understood that in a theoretical way going into the project, but in doing this deeper dive I confronted this idea at a more personal level.
The story of how Alberta, and specifically, the University of Alberta, became a global leader in AI research is foundational to the work taking place now.
To get a firsthand account of how we arrived here, I spoke with Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer. Dr. Schaeffer’s 30+ year career at the University of Alberta and his world-renowned research played an integral role in shaping the AI agenda for Alberta, or as he puts it “how we built a leading AI research lab in the sub-arctic”. Dr. Schaeffer is the person who inspired my interest in AI and ethics. We’ve had a version of this conversation on several occasions and this time, I was very excited to be able to hit the “record” button to capture his story.
While it may take some time for some of the research being done in the lab to hit industry, and ultimately to impact society, this series offers a glimpse into the future. My own work is centered on the ethical implications of AI, and typically that’s illustrated by stories about risk or dystopian futures. I was reminded of the really GREAT things that can happen in AI research when I learned about how Dr. Francois Bolduc is helping autistic kids and their families with a machine learning powered chatbot. When it comes to rewarding work and good uses of technology, I don’t think it gets much better than helping autistic kids and their families!
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be concerned about ethical issues like privacy, fairness, justice or bias in AI. I had a chance to dive into those weighty topics with most of the researchers. One moment that stands out is Dr. Nidhi Hegde’s personal story about how a financial algorithm’s incomplete dataset scored her as a higher financial risk and how that adversely impacted her life. The craziest part of the story is that this happened while she was working for a bank!
There were many moments throughout the podcast series that highlighted the lives of these AI researchers, from quirky hobbies like robot soccer, to past careers working with colourful personalities like Rob Ford. I not only wanted to know about the research, I wanted to know about these researchers. How did they select their research areas? What fuels their passion for their work? Why did they choose academia? What are they most excited about and, conversely, most concerned about when it comes to our AI-enabled future?
I’m fascinated by the humans behind AI and how this particular group of researchers at the University of Alberta have built a collaborative community. Dr. Rich Sutton, the father of reinforcement learning, a CIFAR research fellow and the reason DeepMind set up shop in Edmonton, is someone who could work anywhere in the world. Yet, he continues to make the University of Alberta his home. He shared that it’s a community of researchers who genuinely like working together that keeps him rooted here. Perhaps even more than the
research itself, this collaborative community spirit might be our greatest competitive advantage.
I hope you enjoy listening to the podcast as much as I enjoyed making it. The series launches on January 12th at AI4society.ca
Check out the trailer...