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Tristan Glatard, co-director of Applied AI Institute at Concordia University (left) and Fenwick McKelvey, co-director of Applied AI Institute at Concordia University (right).Supplied

It wasn’t long ago when, for the average person, the words “artificial intelligence” conjured up visions of futuristic fiction – the androids of Blade Runner, say, or Steven Spielberg’s A.I.

In fact, artificial intelligence is very much here-and-now, and not only with a human façade (think of virtual assistants Siri and Alexa, those smartphone genies ready to do our bidding), but in a myriad of forms. From Google searches to medical diagnoses, Netflix’s personalized “Top Picks” to self-driving cars, AI technology has become pervasive. And it’s growing.

It’s predicted that the AI market will contribute as much as $15.7-trillion per year to the global economy by the end of this decade. Its applications will be increasingly integrated into our lives and play a role in shaping our society. That significance is reflected in the wealth of AI research going on right now at Montreal’s Concordia University.

The university has 96 researchers currently exploring AI technology in such fields as finance, health care, urban planning and aerospace design.

“At Concordia, we have a great capacity in AI,” says Tristan Glatard, an associate professor in the department of computer science and software engineering. That’s why Dr. Glatard, along with Dr. Kash Khorasani and Dr. Nizar Bouguila, fellow professors in the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science, founded Concordia’s Applied AI Institute.

We want to focus on projects with real data, to solve actual problems encountered in industry, science and society at large.

Dr. Tristan Glatard, co-director of Applied AI Institute at Concordia University

The Applied AI Institute, launched this month, aims to make Concordia University a key player in Quebec’s AI scene by bringing those researchers under a common umbrella and reaping the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“AI can be a great tool, but the end user should not assume so, or develop it in isolation.” says Dr. Glatard, who shares the institute’s co-directorship with communication studies professor Fenwick McKelvey.

Learning human traits

Unlike traditional computer programs, with artificial intelligence, a computer learns such human traits as decision-making and problem-solving by processing data. It can predict anything from a consumer’s needs to the best treatment for a disease, but its efficacy relies on the quality of the data provided to it. “If we’re going to build AI models with practical relevance, we need people from psychology, physics, the health sciences, to get data and have a good understanding of it,” Dr. Glatard says.

Equally important is involvement from the social sciences. As AI has become more popular, it has also begun to reveal its shortcomings. They range from its use in crafting propaganda and spreading misinformation to its ability to reinforce racial, gender and other social biases.

“I think there’s a lot of widespread societal concern about AI,” says Dr. McKelvey, who is part of an international research project studying public discourse on artificial intelligence.

He refers to an Ipsos survey this year of 28 countries that reveals Canadians are among the most skeptical of AI’s benefits.

The institute wants to address those concerns and integrate them into the development and deployment of AI technology.

The institute is divided into three clusters: AI and Society, AI and Science and AI and Emerging Technology. The first cluster represents research with a particular focus on AI’s societal impact.

AI and Science is specifically devoted to the technology’s use in medical imaging – an area that Dr. Glatard specializes – in which AI helps to predict and potentially tailor treatments for such neurological diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

AI and Emerging Technology involves its use in industry, manufacturing, aerospace systems and the building of smart cities. The latter includes research by institute co-founder Dr. Bouguila, who uses AI applications to make the energy use in buildings more efficient by detecting the presence and activities of the occupants.

Cybersecurity concerns

Other important AI research is being done on cybersecurity, which has become an increasingly urgent issue as hostile groups – and nations – use computers as a weapon. Dr. Mourad Debbabi, Dean of the Gina Cody School and director of its Security Research Centre – one of the eight research centres associated with the Applied AI Institute – is dedicated to improving the detection and prevention of cyberattacks, which can involve the subversion of AI applications.

Dr. Tanja Tajmel, Concordia’s research chair in equity, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (EDI in STEM), is targeting another big issue – algorithmic bias. Errors in AI and other computer programs have been shown to perpetuate discrimination, as seen in a mortgage app that skewed towards approving white customers over Black and Hispanic ones. Or the case of streaming service Spotify, whose song recommendation system was revealed to favour male over female artists.

The AI field itself is male-dominated and the Applied AI Institute hopes to change that, embracing the ideals of diversity and inclusion. “We want to create a research culture that values justice and equity,” Dr. McKelvey says. He adds that those values will also inform its training programs. The institute has recently completed its first training partnership, working with more than 100 employees of telecommunications firm Ericsson Canada. It plans to offer its expertise to other businesses through Concordia’s Lifelong Learning institute.

Dr. Glatard says the Applied AI Institute will also take the university’s signature hands-on approach and cultivate connections with industry, government and communities. “We’re very much about applied AI,” he says. “We want to focus on projects with real data, to solve actual problems encountered in industry, science and society at large.”

Science fiction has told us to be wary of AI and the Dr. Glatard appreciates that. “It’s important both to improve it – to have better models to make better decisions – but also to understand how it’s being used and to see its dark sides,” he says.

Dr. McKelvey is hopeful that the institute’s thoughtful approach can make the technology a force for good. “We want to move AI into being a part of building a better society,” he says.

For more information about Concordia’s Applied AI Institute, visit concordia.ca/appliedai.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Concordia University. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.