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New podcast draws on U of A expertise to explore how AI will shape society

In “AI4Society Dialogues,” top experts explain why artificial intelligence is so promising in so many research areas, and how it could change every aspect of our lives.

  • January 12, 2021
  • By Michael Brown

After moving back from France to Canada in 2018, Nidhi Hegde found herself with a sudden credit problem despite spending nearly 20 years overseas as a telecommunications and AI researcher.

Despite having two decades of well-paying jobs to her name, Hegde’s credit score at home was based on a young, aspiring version of herself who last resided in Edmonton in 1996 as a University of Alberta undergrad finishing up her biochemistry degree.

So instead of getting approved for a house loan, Hegde—who was employed at a bank and had an otherwise clean credit rating—had to settle for a credit card with a limit reserved for first-time cardholders.

“All because I was seen as someone without a credit history, even though I spent 18 years in Europe and had a good credit rating there,” she said. “They were making this decision on me without the right data. I can imagine that this can be disastrous for many people who are looking for loans or even just getting a credit card.”

Hegde, who is now back at the U of A as a professor in the Department of Computing Science helping to drive new approaches in differential privacy, tells this cautionary tale about the hazards of incomplete datasets as part of episode six of a new U of A-produced podcast, titled AI4Society Dialogues.

“The algorithm is not going to sit with you and ask you, and doesn't know you or know your story,” she said. On the other hand, she noted AI isn’t the dystopian killer cyborg from 2029 that Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed in The Terminator

“There’s this sense of a sort of mystical idea about AI, and I wish that people would understand it’s a technology and it can be used for many purposes, just like any technology.”

Signature strength in AI research

The podcasts, produced on behalf of AI4Society, a signature research area at the U of A, and the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS), are hosted by Katrina Ingram, who graduated in November with a master of arts in communications and technology in AI with a focus on ethics.

No stranger to podcasts herself, Ingram used the medium to document her midlife journey going back to school. In this one, AI4Society’s directors, Eleni Stroulia and Geoffrey Rockwell wanted a project that tackled some of the broad issues of how AI will shape society, and vice versa, while putting on display the university’s depth of AI expertise.

“Sometimes when we think of AI researchers, we think of computer scientists. The reality is that AI is going to be like electricity—it's going to impact pretty much everything.”

Katrina Ingram

“Sometimes when we think of AI researchers, we think of computer scientists. The reality is that AI is going to be like electricity—it's going to impact pretty much everything.”

Besides ethical considerations, episodes include a conversation with Jonathan Schaeffer, whose 30-plus year career at the U of A has 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 Subarctic.”

She also speaks with Francois Bolduc, a U of A pediatrics professor who is helping autistic kids and their families with a machine learning-powered chatbot.

“It unpacks the history of AI in Alberta and connects the dots from the early days of our world-class research using games to the many ways AI is shaping the future of education, medicine, law, consumer behaviour and so much more,” said Ingram.

AI4Society · AI4Society Dialogues - Trailer

AI4Society is a signature area of research for the U of A, which has as part of its mandate the task of building interdisciplinary relationships and connecting the U of A community of AI researchers to the community at large, whether that's industry or not-for-profit organizations. 

“The questions and the way we asked them, the way we frame things is really meant to draw in a curious, general public, and mobilize knowledge by taking the research out of the university on our audio platform.”

Episode guide

AI4Society Dialogues launched on Jan.12 with new episodes set to be released every other Tuesday.

Episode 1: Jonathan Schaeffer: Building an AI research powerhouse at the U of A

How did the U of A become a global leader in AI research? Jonathan Schaeffer shares his personal account of how a community of like-minded individuals, early government support and world record-setting research set the stage for Alberta to play a leading role in AI research.

Episode 2: Michael Bowling: Game-changing AI research 

As constructed environments with clear parameters, games are an ideal proving ground for AI research. Michael Bowling, whose AI program won the World Championship of Poker (twice!), takes a playful approach in using games to solve big, complex challenges.

Episode 3: Cathy Adams: Digital technology: the next killer app for education

Cathy Adams has been working at the intersection of education and technology, investigating how digital technologies shape knowledge practices. We reflect on the past, and how the now-ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation has shaped learning.

Episode 4: Francois Bolduc: Genetics, chatbots and the future of medicine

As both a clinician and researcher, Francois Bolduc is using AI to advance his research as well as serve patients. We talk about the role of big data and AI in genetic research and the challenges and opportunities in working as part of an interdisciplinary team.

Episode 5: Michael Frishkopf: Advancing ethnomusicology with AI

U of A ethnomusicologist Michael Frishkopf deploys the power of AI to formulate and test new hypotheses about the relationship between music and culture, speech and individuality. In this wide-ranging conversation, we cover the relationship between math and music.

Episode 6: Nidhi Hegde: Privacy, ethics and AI 

The use of AI across many high-risk domains is raising many ethical questions. This includes issues around privacy and biases in data as well as questions about equity and inclusion. Nidhi Hegde’s work is helping to drive new approaches in differential privacy.

Episode 7: Noah Castelo: Relating to robots 

How people respond to AI depends on their perceptions of whether or not AI is to be trusted, the context in which they encounter AI and, in the case of robots, how the AI looks. Noah Castelo is a behavioural scientist whose expertise and research into psychology and consumer behaviour are providing deeper insights into the question of how humans will relate to AI. 

Episode 8: Jennifer Raso: Encoding the law: technology’s impact on institutional decision-making

Increasingly, automated systems are being used to aid in the delivery of important social service programs. Jennifer Raso’s work in the area of administrative law focuses on the relationship of human and non-human collaboration on institutional decision-making and the resulting legal and ethical outcomes.

Episode 9: Deb Verhoeven: Networked Data: Gender, Power and Relationships

In her work as a digital humanities scholar, Deb Verhoeven is enlisting machine learning to redress the persistent domination of power elites. She’s also pioneering a new type of intervention she calls “digital infrapuncture.” We talk about big data, AI, networks, digital infrastructure, search and why Richard Davidson just might be the best name to have if you’re looking for funding.

Episode 10: Rich Sutton: Reinforcement learning and the future of AI 

Can we teach AI to learn from its own experiences? That’s the premise behind reinforcement learning. Rich Sutton is a professor in computer science and one of the leading figures in AI research. We talk about the early days of his career, why he chose to make the U of A his home, the benefits of not chasing fads and the importance of interdisciplinary AI research.