Introducing the AI4Society Signature Area

AI4Society will provide institutional leadership in this exciting area of teaching, research, and scholarship.

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Update: AI4Society will formally launch on September 25, 2020. Register for the online event from 9 am — 10 am and learn more from University of Alberta’s Signature Research Area on artificial intelligence and its applications.Register for the online event from 9 am — 10 am and learn more from University of Alberta’s Signature Research Area on artificial intelligence and its applications.

The University of Alberta has gained institutional recognition and prominence as a lead player in AI research and Canada’s national AI strategy. For more than four decades, the U of A has become a world-leader in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and today AI-related activities are being undertaken across campus by faculty in science, engineering, arts, and humanities. The AI4Society Signature Area was approved in December 2019 and will provide institutional leadership in this exciting area of teaching, research, and scholarship, coordinating and designing innovative training programs and representing the institution in new initiatives with public, private, and international partners.

The newest signature teaching and research area is being led by Director Eleni Stroulia (Professor, Computing Science, Faculty of Science) and Associate Director Geoffrey Rockwell (Professor, Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Director of the Kule Institute for Advanced Study). “I have been interested all my life in trying to understand how we can use technology to improve real world, practical scenarios,” Eleni says. “I’ve been interested in how AI technologies can be embedded in existing workflows. That’s why I’m interested in developing the community and leading this signature area.”

“One of the reasons why the idea of signature areas was put forward and built into the strategic plan was to try and identify opportunities for interdisciplinary research and teaching,” Geoffrey says. “The signature areas as a strategy of the university are a perfect way to indicate that collaboration is valued and that the research and educational opportunities will be stronger if they have people representing multiple perspectives. We need to break down barriers and have philosophers, computer scientists, sociologists, talking to each other.”

Despite being unable to formally launch the signature area in-person at the Chancellor’s Forum on April 1, there is still plenty of work happening behind computer screens to connect faculty, staff, students, and the broader community. The Quad talked to Eleni and Goffrey about what our community can expect from AI4Society, and about how to get involved:

What is your vision for AI4Society?

Eleni: We want to be a hub for policy around artificial intelligence. We want to consider a broad spectrum of collecting, managing, and analyzing data, and use the evidence to guide problem solving and decision making. We have a lot of expertise at U of A, the job now is to make sure this expertise coalesces around this signature area. We want to build more interdisciplinary initiatives that address more complex problems, and develop more capacity within the university and community at large.

We want to understand the nascent interdisciplinary communities and the work already happening across faculties. For example, there’s a very interesting computational psychiatry group that has people from medicine and computing science using machine learning and medical data to recognize psychiatric indicators. There’s a very interesting group that’s working with education, arts, and computing science around learning analytics. There’s an interesting group between business and science working on financial technologies. There’s a group in digital law interested in developing education resources for students and practicing lawyers. There are conversations about philosophy and ethics in public health. There are already groups that are working on projects that align with AI and we want to recognize them and support them to become bigger and more productive, more aggressive in getting research funding, and expanding their capacity.

How much of the work within AI4Society will be about elevating the work already happening, and how much will be new projects and initiatives?

Geoffrey: I see my role as trying to build a network that supports people across our campuses, especially those without connections like Eleni and I already have. AI4Society is not another project. It’s really meant to be an incubator for teaching and research projects. For example, the Kule Institute has come to an initial agreement with the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) to run a pilot investigation of what the effects of AI could be for teachers on the ground. It’s this sort of collaboration that I think we can enable and support and help bring together.

Eleni: We’re interested in supporting learning. There’s so much interest in this area that we need to develop educational initiatives — micro-credentials, certificates, open education resources — that can educate more people. We need to work with more faculty and more students to help them understand what their discipline and AI could possibly look like. We’re listening and identifying opportunities for interdisciplinary groups and different digital learning activities and we hope to start supporting these initiatives as we develop the specific objectives for the next few years.

How does the “society” part of AI4Society come into play? Are you looking to engage the broader community, or is it about thinking about how AI might affect society?

Eleni: When we first developed the signature area, it was focused on our campuses to establish the expertise and work already being done. Right now it’s time to look for more community partners and engage more. We have reached out to companies interested in the area, and had conversations with the City of Edmonton. There’s huge potential for Edmonton, Alberta, and beyond to receive our research. Our job as directors is to make sure we have a systematic pipeline to enable these engagements as fast and productively as possible.

Geoffrey: We’re working in an area where there’s a tremendous appetite for everything, from educating students who can be employed to facilitating ways to network and have conversations. I’ve given a number of talks out in the community about these things and the hunger is palpable. Companies investing in AI are trying to figure out how to do it in a way that’s ethical and for the good of Albertans. If anything, the problem is going to be not getting completely sucked into too many partnerships and keeping time for original research and teaching of our students.

Personally, I’ve been doing a fair amount of work and teaching in the area of information ethics and privacy, and looking at the discourse around AI: how are people talking about it? What are they worried about? What are the principles? There has been an explosion of principles developed for AI, but there has also been a lot of discussion about, well, principles aren’t enough. You can have all of the principles you want, but what if nobody abides by them? One of the older fields in philosophy is the philosophy and ethics of computing, and it’s becoming increasingly relevant again.

What work is happening within the signature area now?

Geoffrey: Departments are putting together new course offerings — I’m teaching one on information ethics with a focus on AI. I think a number of units will be experimenting with courses, and hopefully there will be a dialogue going. I hope we’ll have a more structured conversation about shared courses between departments. Individual departments need to have conversations with each other so that we understand the possible flows of students.

Even though we can’t have face to face meetups, we still need to be having conversations. We’re thinking of different ways to bring people together; an online conference doesn’t need to mimic the in-person experience. That’s exactly what a signature area is about: getting the support to try some innovative ways to bring research and education together.

If someone wants to get involved, what’s the best way to do so?

Eleni: We have a mailing list and a website. We encourage our members to pass it on to colleagues who might be interested. People can also email us at

We’re very excited. There is so much interest in AI, it’s great for the university to have this central point. We hope to engage people at many levels. If a student out there wants to come and join a group or meet a professor, we want to be the concierge for anyone interested in doing something with AI.

Geoff: I think some people think the signature areas are experienced, long-running groups who have all sorts of processes in place. In fact, it’s the opposite. They are meant to be nimble, flexible ways of meeting new challenges. Rather than saying “what can you do for us,” I think it would be great if people came to us with initiatives and said “I’d like to meet the following types of people to carry out the following type of initiative, can you help me with that?”