This story was first published in the National Post Report On Education on Wednesday, October 3, 2018

waterloo engineering robohub demand for ai skills

You’re already familiar with virtual personal assistants like Siri and apps that rec­ommend music and movies based on your interests and decisions you’ve made in the past. You also know self-driv­ing cars are moving closer and closer to reality.

Now, imagine a day when people with diabetes can monitor their blood sugar without the need for painful finger pricks several times a day. Or how about wearable technology that can detect whether your health is fail­ing or software systems that flag things like potholes and cracks on roads, bridges and buildings.

All that could be possible in the not-too-distance fu­ture, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI). They’re also examples of re­search currently underway at the University of Water­loo, home to the Waterloo AI Institute, which brings together researchers and businesses to advance tech­nology and prepare Canada for future economic disrup­tion.

As part of its mandate, Waterloo AI will pursue new areas of research with societ­al and business impact, in­cluding health care, environ­mental protection, urban planning, manufacturing, autonomous systems and human-machine interaction and will emphasize timely access to expertise to indi­viduals and industry.

AI is estimated to con­tribute up to $15.7 trillion per year to the global econ­omy by 2030 and if proper­ly leveraged, will promote innovation, grow the econ­omy and create thousands of middle-class jobs the provin­cial government of the day reported with Waterloo launched the institute this past spring.

Technology is pushing post-secondary institutions to develop new courses fast­er. Waterloo has developed numerous new courses in the last few years that would have been unthinkable not so long ago, including robot dynamics and control, sta­tistical and computer foun­dations of machine learning, and autonomous mobile robots. In the last five years, more than 3,400 math and engineering students at Waterloo took a course that covered AI, deep learning and/or machine learning.

Waterloo AI co-director Peter van Beek, a professor of computer science, has taught an introductory AI course for several decades. “When I first started teach­ing it, we struggled to find interesting and motivating applications of technology. It was more theoretical. We don’t even bother anymore because students know all these examples like Siri and autonomous driving.

“AI is everywhere. That’s what drives the interest. Students want to know how it works and how they can participate in it.” Waterloo AI is aimed primarily at the graduate world of research. “Significant advances have been made in AI in the last five to 10 years but it still has a long way to go,” van Beek says.

Undergrads, meanwhile, are learning math and com­puter science skills that will enable them to make an im­pact on the next generation of intelligent robots that will be able to work collab­oratively with humans, as opposed to being segregat­ed – as many used in manu­facturing and industry are now, says professor William Melek, director of mechatronics engineering.

“It might not be in the form of a humanoid, a ter­minator or the transformer kids usually see in mov­ies and video games,” says Melek. “Based on all of the applications I’ve seen, I think it will be more embed­ded and the brain of the sys­tem to allow it to make deci­sions, work closely with hu­mans and take into account the ethics of AI.”

To address the high demand for Artificial Intelligence (AI) talent, Waterloo Engineering introduced an AI option last spring that has quickly become a popular choice for undergraduate students.