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Concordia’s District 3 champions artificial intelligence for global good

Researchers from the innovation center feature their technologies at a UN summit in Geneva
August 1, 2017
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By Khalil Haddad / James Roach

Xavier-Henri Hervé, Sydney Swaine-Simon and Sophia, the humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics at the AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva. | Photos by District 3 Xavier-Henri Hervé (centre) and Sydney Swaine-Simon with Sophia, the humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics, at the AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva. | Photos by District 3


Artificial intelligence, or AI, has the potential to cause harm but can it also make the world a better place?

Much of the concern has to do with AI’s capacity to displace vast segments of the workforce, increase unemployment and broaden the wealth divide. However, there’s also a lot of excitement around the burgeoning technology’s myriad possible applications for tackling issues related to education, poverty, health and climate change, to name a few.

Montreal has established itself as a hub for AI research and development, but much of the work up until now has been focused on solving business challenges — not taking on major societal or environmental problems.

Xavier-Henri Hervé is executive director of the District 3 Innovation Center at Concordia. He and founding member Sydney Swaine-Simon are working to change the city’s current AI landscape, throwing their support behind projects that may one day improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable.

The two recently attended the United Nations’ inaugural AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva. The conference brought together government representatives, UN agencies, NGOs and AI specialists, all seeking to develop AI with the capacity to tackle issues related to education, poverty, health and climate change.
 

‘Emerging technologies are radically changing our society’


How is District 3 working to advance the conversation on AI?

Xavier-Henri Hervé: The focus has mainly been on assisting industry in tackling their challenges with AI solutions. We want to go beyond this, to leverage AI to solve big societal challenges. To this end, we provide support and resources to unite innovation leaders, entrepreneurs and researchers seeking to collaborate. 


How does District 3’s philosophy align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

XH: They are perfectly aligned. Emerging technologies are radically changing our society and the way we live, work and relate to one another at an unprecedented rate. District 3’s goal is to make AI accessible by creating a multidisciplinary hub. We seek to bring together innovation leaders, entrepreneurs and key players from industry, government and academia to collaborate and tackle global societal challenges. 


What is the connection between District 3 and the AI for Good summit?

XH: District District 3 is a proud ambassador of the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE for Eastern Canada. The organizers of this competition have worked closely with the AI for Good summit.

Because District 3 has contributed more teams and more initiatives to the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE than any other centre worldwide, we were invited along with our Montreal teams to participate in the summit and contribute to policy discussions.

From left: Dr. Eyenimi Ndiomu (Ubenwa), Kathy Shirin Benemann (Erudite AI), Patrick Poirier (Erudite AI), Sydney Swaine-Simon, Xavier-Henri Hervé, David Benrimoh (AIfred), Abhishek Gupta (AIfred) AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva. | Photos by District 3 Eyenimi Ndiomu (Ubenwa), Kathy Shirin Benemann (Erudite AI), Patrick Poirier (Erudite AI), Sydney Swaine-Simon, Xavier-Henri Hervé, David Benrimoh (AIfred), Abhishek Gupta (AIfred) at the AI for Good Global Summit.


What are your takeaways from AI for Good?

Sydney Swaine-Simon: The main takeaway that I have is that government is interested in the power of AI and automation. However, they are not very knowledgeable on the subject matter. This conference was a good starting point, bringing together policy makers, industry leaders and researchers.


Why was AI for Good necessary?

SS: The summit was a first step in developing recommendations on the policies that should be created to ensure that AI is used ethically. If governments wait too long to develop policies and regulations, others could leverage the technology to cause more harm than good.

This summit also helped create awareness of the value of AI in making the world more prosperous. Intelligent automation and expert systems can help provide cheap, scalable solutions to countries that do not have a lot of resources.

Imagine being able to give children a higher-quality education than what is available in North America, but at a fraction of the cost, using inexpensive tablets. This is possible with the advancement of AI.


Tell us about the 12 teams you’re mentoring for the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE.

SS: Each team comes from a varied background and each is solving a different problem. A common thread is solving health and environmental problems. Three teams in Montreal participated in AI for Good: Erudite AI, Ubenwa and AIFred.


How can Concordians get involved or support these teams?

SS: Concordians can join the teams in their venture, as well as help to shape the future of AI for Good. If you are interested in submitting your own idea for the next IBM Watson AI XPRIZE competition, new teams can register from now until December 1.


Visit the 
District 3 Innovation Center on Fridays at 3 p.m. to find out how you can get involved. Learn more about the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE teams at District 3.
 



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