Innovators who are building the next-generation of computing and artificial intelligence say the tech community needs people who can translate the power – and the peril – of technology to society.

“Powerful technologies can be dangerous and it’s important they be guided by ethics and an inclusive community,” says Joseph Emerson, a professor in the Faculty of Mathematics and faculty member of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC).

Emerson, who co-founded a startup called Quantum Benchmark, was speaking at the Waterloo Innovation Summit’s speaker series in Toronto. The Friday event, hosted by the University of Waterloo and the Globe and Mail, featured panels on the potential of artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Emerson, who researches ways to control fragile quantum states and methods for assessing and improving the performance of quantum devices, told the crowd that Canada needs a new generation with diverse perspectives to leverage the head start it got in quantum research when IQC was established in 2002.

Pearl Sullivan, the University’s dean of engineering, said the hardest intelligence to develop and scale will be human-centred intelligence – not digital or artificial intelligence.

Society needs AI-translators

Sullivan called for “AI translators” from the business community or academia who can help ask the right questions and bring context to new technological developments. “These human attributes cannot be substituted by artificial intelligence,” said Sullivan. “We are short of experts, but we are critically short of translators.”

Alex Wong, a Waterloo professor of systems design engineering who specializes in AI, has developed technology that can help doctors make better decisions when it comes to cancer diagnosis and care. His team is developing technology that helps doctors at the initial cancer screening and improves recovery rates.

He said AI translators could help businesses, who often abandon artificial intelligence too early because the organization isn’t seeing a return on their investment. However, Wong pointed out that often what is needed is a brain-storming session with an expert who asks the right kinds of questions.  “Industry needs people who are able to take the fundamental AI theories and translate and integrate them into the company structure,”added Wong.

Kate Larson, a professor in Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton of Computer Science, has developed AI techniques to improve the deployment of resources to combat forest fires. She told the crowd at the Globe and Mail Events Centre that machine intelligence often comes with the all-too human biases in the data that is used to train machines. Larson said some facial recognition software does a great job – but only on white men.

“You can tell me what outcome you want,” said Larson. “But what is a good outcome? That depends on the preferences of the decision makers and their values. We need people who can think hard and carefully about what our preferences and values are when we are designing platforms that affect our daily lives.”

Max Tegmark, an MIT professor doing physics and AI research, is the author of New York Times bestseller, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. He said when thinking of the future of technology we should start with basic measures like: banning lethal autonomous weapons; ensuring AI generated wealth makes everyone better off and investing in AI safety research.

“We can build AI that overpowers us, or build AI that empowers us,” he said.