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