Global Futures in Focus with Dominic Barton

Technological Futures - Global Futures in Focus with Dominic Barton

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Episode description

Innovation and technology are driving every sector of our economy forward. They are changing the way we live, work and play in immeasurable ways. In this episode, Dominic Barton explores how we can lead the next technological transformation to ensure a safe and human-centred digital future.

We hear from young innovators and internationally renowned researchers including Dr. Kerstin Dautenhahn, Canada 150 Research Chair in Intelligent Robotics, and Dr. Will Percival, Distinguished Research Chair in Astrophysics.

Featured in order of appearance:

Dr. Vivek Goel
Dr. Jimmy Lin
Dr. Joel Blit
Dr. Kerstin Dautenhahn
Seun Adetunji
Dr. Sebastian Fischmeister
Dr. Chris Fletcher
Dr. Will Percival

Episode transcript

Dr. Jimmy Lin: I really think it's fear mongering. I think the scenario of Terminator, this science fiction dystopia where the robots are literally going to kill us all. I doubt that's really going to happen.

Dominic Barton: Innovation and technology are driving every sector of our economy forward. They are changing the way we live, work and play in immeasurable ways. Technology is moving two to three times faster than business. We are living in a turbulent and disruptive world, fed by increasing computational power and data. 

Multiple Voices: Innovations and medical technology in the next decade could bring a new era of… health researchers are demanding generative AI companies give investigators…scientists have developed anew robot surgeon that … hundreds of organizations around the world have likely had their data exposed.

Dominic Barton: The average washing machine has more technology and processing power in it than NASA had to land a man on the moon. The iPhone 12 is more than 100 million times faster than the Apollo 11 guidance computer. That's staggering to consider. It's an indication of the forces of play when it comes to technological innovation, and our technological future. As technology continues to accelerate at an exponential pace, bringing both benefits and new challenges, how will we lead the next technological transformation to ensure a safe and human centered digital future? What's truly fascinating about Waterloo is its origins in 1957. It was formed in a time of extraordinary change. Similar to what we are seeing today. There was a concern at that time amongst industry leaders, that as a country, we weren't skilling Canadians for the future, and our country would be left behind. 

In response to the circumstances, what happened in this small farming community is unbelievable. Emerging from this dirt field grew a university that today is a global force. Companies like Blackberry and OpenText spun off from the university, and this region of Ontario has established itself as the Silicon Valley of the North. As Waterloo continues to lead in technology and innovation in critical areas, we have an opportunity to shape technology to serve society, rather than letting technology shape us. 

This is Global Futures in Focus from the University of Waterloo. I'm Dominic Barton. 

Recently, we have seen ChatGPT dominate headlines and capture imaginations for what is possible when it comes to artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing and the increased collection of data is evident in every facet of our lives. As I've learned during my time as chancellor, the University of Waterloo has a long and somewhat storied connection with computing. It housed the most powerful computer in Canada, an IBM 360 75 mainframe, back in the late 1960s. That computer and the brilliant people in the Faculties of Mathematics and Engineering at Waterloo, have built a reputation for being on the cutting edge of technological innovation ever since. 

 The Institute for Quantum Computing is a world leading research institute. It advances the field of quantum information at the highest international level to discover and develop powerful new quantum technologies. In many cases, we don't know yet what these technologies may be used for in the future. But the potential is astronomical. It isn't always the technology, but also what's behind that technology.  

Responsible AI, or technology for good is an important area to consider as we head into an uncertain future. How do we inform the development of new innovations, so that society shapes the development of technologies, as opposed to technology shaping our society's future? According to Vivek Goel, president and vice-chancellor of Waterloo, providing students with a broad understanding of technological and societal innovations is at the heart of what drives the institution. 

Dr. Vivek Goel: We have a number of technological areas that we've identified that we have leadership positions in artificial intelligence, data sciences, cybersecurity, quantum nano technologies, robotics, advanced manufacturing, they cut across many disciplines and faculties, but they've evolved over time. We've positioned ourselves as leaders. What we need to think about is, you know, how do we combine that with thinking about the societal futures? And we can think about things like responsible AI or tech for good, is one way of thinking about how do we inform the development of those technologies, so, what we want for society's futures, shapes the development of the technologies, as opposed to technologies shaping our society's future. And you know, and then that leads us to discussions around what should be in the core experiences for students in those technological disciplines, right? From the humanities, from the social sciences, from arts from design, we don't have to necessarily pack everything into the curriculum of our students. But how does the co-op experience for students that are in co-op, help them understand some of those broader issues? Use that in designing our programs and recruiting students? And showcasing what we do? Say we could do these things differently because we have these differentiators. 

Dominic Barton: Living in a time of groundbreaking technologies is a double-edged sword. How we leverage the increasing amount of data with new technologies like AI, poses just as many risks as possibilities. Who has access to the data? Can it be manipulated? Is it being used ethically? Dr. Jimmy Lin is a professor at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science and co-director of the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute, whose membership is comprised of more than 200 professors from all six faculties. His research focuses on how systems like ChatGPT learn.

Dr. Jimmy Lin: So, ChatGPT and other large language models, they're really like the fulfillment of a dream. It's a, it's a dream that we as humans have, since the dawn of time, right? So, language, you know, being able to talk to one another is a is a longing, it's a desire, it's what humans do. And so, since, since the dawn of computer science, you know, a century ago, we've been wanting to build machines that we can talk to. And over the decades, we've made some progress. But it hasn't been until recently, with ChatGPT and large language models that we've actually kind of realized that dream. And this is why it's so exciting. Now, of course, ChatGPT is just text-based. But now, we're coupling it with lots of other complementary technologies. So, there is speech recognition technology, so the machines can actually understand things that we say, there's text to speech technology. And so, ChatGPT can take the text and actually speak to us, and then combining it with vision capabilities the models can see. And so that's what makes this field so exciting and so powerful. We should be, of course, cognizant of the challenges that that the technology presents, but we should also be able to step back and sort of be in awe and wonder about all the cool things that we could do from it.

Dominic Barton: When it comes to technological innovation, I often position my view that we're still in the early stages of what is possible. The horizon of technological innovation feels limitless. In fact, the exponential growth and trajectory are hard to fathom. We are already witnessing how technology is relentless in transforming all areas of society in our economy. There is not a sector, organization or corporation that is not being fundamentally changed by it. In fact, recent research from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company shows that generative AI could enable automation of up to 70 per cent of business activities across almost all occupations between now and 2030. Even the Pope has an AI advisor. Dr. Joel Blit is a professor of economics. His most recent research focuses on automation and the future of work. He was recently asked about how we balance societal and economic risk when adopting new technologies. 

Dr. Joel Blit: Well, there's absolutely reason to be concerned. You know, we don't want to just adopt the technology willy nilly without thinking through some of the implications and putting in place, you know, safeguards regulations, etc. So, you know, those are all valid, but what I caution against is, fear always dominates. So, if you're in a room and one person is saying, hey, here's some opportunities. The other one is saying, you know, the world is going to end, all jobs are going to be lost. Very quickly the discussion focuses just on the latter just on the loss of jobs on the existential threat to humanity. And there needs to be much more of a balance, right? So, we need to as Canadians, we cannot afford to be focused on the negatives on the threats. They are real, and we have to think about how to address them best. But we also have to be thinking and maybe even more, so we have to be thinking about embracing the technology to really reap its benefits. 

Dominic Barton: I've seen over the years that businesses willing to be early adopters of new innovations can reap the biggest benefits and outpace their competition. Our relationship with technology is complicated. It's complicated, because as humans, we aren't evolving at the same speed as our technological innovation is. Computers have been beating good chess players since the 1980s. But probably the most famous victory happened in 1997 when a computer named Big Blue defeated world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. Go is considered much more difficult for computers to win and other games such as chess. 

Go is a two-player board game in which the aim is to capture more territory than your opponent by fencing off empty space. The game was invented in China more than 2500 years ago and is believed to be the oldest board game continuously played to the present day. Almost two decades after IBM’s computer Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov. The strongest Go programs using artificial intelligence techniques only reached an amateur level. Deep Mind, now part of Google, formed the AlphaGo research project in 2014 to test how well AI can play at Go. By 2016, AlphaGo had beaten the top ranked Go player. Ke Jie, a top ranked gold player in 2017, said that quote, “after humanity spent 1000s of years improving our tactics, computers tell us that humans are completely wrong. I would go as far as to say not a single human has touched the edge of the truth of go” close quotes. 

Technology is also playing a transformative and positive role in society. It can bring people together, diagnose disease, improve and streamline processes and health care and education to increase efficiency. Human Computer Interaction is a field of study that goes beyond technology development, to critically assess how technology impacts people's lives. At Waterloo researchers like Professor Edith Law are investigating how technology advances society and the economy admits our rush for rapid innovation. Dr. Law and her team are actively developing tools that help people who label machine learning data to recognize and reflect on their own biases. That self-awareness will empower individuals in the future to build more ethical and unbiased datasets. 

Dr. Kerstin Dautenhahn is a professor and candidate 150 Research Chair in Intelligent Robotics, who studies social robots in applications where they can serve as a systems or companions. Her team investigates how robots can support older adults, as well as children with disabilities, including learning speech and language disabilities.

Dr. Kerstin Dautenhahn: There are thousands of children out there who could benefit from using technology using robotics technology to help them to learn about human communication. And they are also many other groups of children. On the other end of the spectrum, I'm also interested in robots to assist older people, people with dementia, or people who are maybe still able to live independently in their home, but who might have developed certain problems, maybe physical problems, maybe they need a walking stick to walk or maybe you know, they cannot use one of their arms very well, anymore. And for them, the difference between staying independently living in their own homes and being admitted to a care home could be a very significant factor. I think what we're doing here, at the Social and Intelligent Robotics Laboratory is really special that we try to design and create intelligent systems, intelligent autonomous robots, but robots that can work hand in hand with other people in a socially intelligent way. So, we are looking not only at the technology side, not only at the AI not only at the engineering and computer science aspects, but also at the social aspects at the human aspect. It's, it's a human centered perspective on AI and autonomous robots. 

Dominic Barton: Technology is quickly changing the health care landscape from online or video appointments to new diagnostic tools in hospitals and on your smartwatch. Technology is pushing us to re-examine how the health care sector works and how our health data is used. Seun Adetunji is a master of business entrepreneurship and technology student, she took her family's experience in dealing with a health care system and identified that many patients, including members of her own family, have difficulty understanding medical jargon. So, she created an app that takes the medical information shared between doctors and their patients, and simplifies it, and in some cases translates it for patients and their families. With support from GreenHouse, a social impact startup incubator, she created an app called, MedInclude.

Seun Adetunji: Growing up, as a teenage girl, I was the primary caregiver to my grandmother at that time, she didn't speak English, a lot of the information that was being shared was in English. And so, for many doctors visits, I would have to translate and be the middle person between her and a doctor. That frustration between me the doctor, my grandmother, not understanding each other and not fully having the agency to fully convey our thoughts directly also contributed to me going out to say that needs to be a solution out there. And so, at the time that I worked with some cancer patients, actually, I assumed that decades after taking care of my grandmother, there for sure would be a solution addressing this. And so, I was quite disappointed at the end of my research to have come up with nothing. And my grandmother did not speak English as a first language. She also could not read a more in her mother tongue. And so, one of the features that we're including in the MedInclude platform is a text-to-voice voice feature. So, an option for the patient to also receive the already translated medical information in audio format.

Dominic Barton: With all this data that has been generated, we need systems and governance in place to ensure that our personal and health information remain private. Safeguarding this information lands squarely in the hands of researchers like Sebastian Fischmeister. Dr. Fischmeister is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. His research focuses on keeping our data systems and networks safe from prying eyes.

Dr. Sebastian Fischmeister: I work in safety critical systems. Safety critical systems are systems where if something goes wrong, it really goes wrong. So, when you look at the general accepted definition for it, it's systems where fault in the system can lead to damage to humans to loss of capital infrastructure, or for example, damage to the environment. And it's often really a decision between life and death for operators or users. For example, you are sitting in a car and driving, and you are expecting that when you step on the brake pedal that the car decelerates within a reasonable amount of time. And if that wouldn't work, well, you are in a very hazardous situation. Other examples of safety critical systems are aircraft, medical devices, or for example, even elevators, where you usually have to expectation when you step into an elevator, you end up on another floor in one piece. My team is working on a project that received funding from the Canadian Safety and Security program to work together with NRCan (Natural Resources Canada) and partner organizations and investigate the risks and mitigation methods available for supply chain cybersecurity. In this project, we are looking into how to assess the risk that is present through the supply chain. And what types of technologies and products are available to industry today to assess and mitigate the particular risks. So that when they purchase electronics, that they can identify whether for example, they authentic and have no compromised elements in them before they actually integrate them into their infrastructure. 

Dominic Barton: Technology intersects all of the global futures. In this episode, we've heard a lot about its impact on the economy, health and society. But it also empowers a sustainable future. Dr. Chris Fletcher is a climate scientist, professor and member of the Waterloo Climate Institute. He's an expert in earth systems modeling and monitoring, and uses satellite technology to study atmospheric changes. Fletcher is part of the High-altitude Aerosols Water vapor and Clouds Canadian mission called HAWC for short. The mission is a joint initiative between more than a dozen Canadian universities and the Canadian Space Agency and is expected to launch around 2030. Dr. Fletcher's research will help develop technology to reveal previously unseen information on clouds and precipitation. HAWC will be generation defining because a new younger generation of climate scientists in Canada will be trained in space and climate science over the lifespan of the mission. It will have a lasting impact on climate research in Canada, and globally long into the future.

Dr. Chris Fletcher: We're hampered as climate scientists by a lack of reliable, accurate observations of some of the most important parts of the atmosphere, processes and constituents of the atmosphere water vapor, clouds, aerosol particles. So, it's really like we're driving a car with blinkers on right now. And the new data and new measurements that are going to come from the HAWC instruments is really going to be like taking the blinkers off for climate scientists, which will reveal you know far more of the picture of what's going on in the atmosphere than we've ever been able to see before. You know, we need to develop software that can convert the measurements that the satellite provides, things that don't actually mean anything physical. So, we need to create software algorithms that can actually convert those values to be meaningful quantities that relate to physical things like clouds, water vapor, aerosols in the atmosphere. And we do that with some pretty sophisticated software with some modeling as well. And using you know, other measurements of atmospheric quantities, like temperature, humidity, wind speed, all of those things that we can measure at the same time. And we blend all those things together in a computer algorithm to basically output an estimate of what the clouds or the water vapor or the aerosols is going to be like. 

Dominic Barton: Every institution from the Catholic Church to a grocery chain is being impacted by the advances in technology. Understanding the technology is vital. But understanding how that technology impacts us is essential. In many cases, researchers are uncovering things that today have little relevance, but hold potential for the future. 

Applied science is usually credited for innovations, but it is fundamental research, often focused on theory, that is the gateway to innovation. Universities are largely responsible for developing ideas and global talent, which will help traditional organizations adapt and respond to new realities to create for themselves a place at the table. Those adaptations and innovations often take decades to become a reality. You never know what might be important, as Abraham Flexner wrote in the Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, published in 1939, quote, “throughout the whole history of science, most of the really great discoveries which can ultimately prove to be beneficial to humankind had been made by men and women, who are driven not by the desire to be useful, but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” You can look at the story of the scientist at Caltech, who focused his life's work on the mathematics behind the physiology of jellyfish. He was actually proud that his body of work had no practical application. He was just curious to be able to model mathematically, the movement of jellyfish. The practical application was not obvious at the time the knowledge was created. However, years later, his discoveries would play a crucial role in angioplasty, a minimally invasive procedure to widen narrowed or obstructed arteries or veins. Dr. Will Percival is a professor and distinguished research chair in astrophysics. He spends a lot of time peering into the cosmos and studying black holes. Dr. Percival champions the importance of fundamental research in nurturing curiosity and cultivating innovation. 

Dr. Will Percival: I’m an observational cosmologist. I study the universe on the largest scales that you can do. So, we're interested in the big picture, what's out there, why the universe is behaving as it does. Fundamental science is incredibly important to innovation, the problem is that it starts usually a long time before the innovation actually happens. You need to actually get to grips with the fundamental physics before you can exploit it and use it to make money and tax basically. So, we are there, you know, with blue sky thinking, but we're also there way before the, the applications are ready. But past history tells us that those applications will come through. And fundamentally, we will look back in 20, 30 year’s time and say, wow, that was important to understand what was going on.

Dominic Barton: While it's impossible to predict technological advances in the coming decades, I've seen the University of Waterloo play an important role in helping shape future technologies for good. Instead of simply asking what, they are asking what for? 

In this episode, we heard from Jimmy Lin and Joel Blit, about ways that we can rationalize and respond to how technology is evolving around us. How a master's student startup is transforming patients understanding and experience within the health-care system. How Chris Fletcher is using satellite imagery to paint a clearer picture of the impacts of climate change, and we ventured beyond the stratosphere with Will Percival to remind us that there is still much out there to discover. 

These students and researchers are taking Waterloo strengths in advancing technology, and uncovering solutions and innovations and ensuring they are responsible, sustainable and socially viable. 

You've been listening to the technological futures episode of Global Futures in Focus. I encourage you to listen to our other Global Futures episodes, where we focus on the global transformations, cutting across sustainability, society, health and the economy. 

I hope they inspire you to make a difference in your own unique and perhaps unconventional way. I'm Dominic Barton.