The second Waterloo Symposium on Technology and Society was held on May 15th, 2019 at the Balsillie School for International Affairs (BSIA) and focused on the topic of artificial intelligence (AI). The event featured a keynote lecture by Dr. Avi Goldfarb, the Rotman Chair in Artificial Intelligence and Healthcare at the Rotman School of Management in the University of Toronto. After the keynote there was a panel discussion moderated by CSG Executive Director, Dr. Mark Sedra, featuring: Prof. Andrew Bailey (Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph), Prof. Carla Fehr (Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo) and Prof. Mark Crowley (Assistant Professor in the Pattern Recognition and Machine Intelligence group in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo).

To set the stage for the keynote, the CSG provided the audience with a taste of AI in action in the Waterloo region. A local technology firm, Huron Digital Pathology, was invited to make a brief presentation on how they are incorporating AI into their work. Huron CEO Patrick Myles, and Huron’s AI Advisor, Prof. Hamid Tizhoosh, gave a snapshot of Huron’s work on AI. They showed the tremendous potential of AI to assist pathologists and other healthcare specialists to deliver quicker and more accurate diagnoses. Given the shortage of pathologists in many developing countries, such technology could be a game changer in expanding access global to good quality healthcare.

With the audience armed with a tangible example of the transformative power of AI , Dr. Goldfarb launched his presentation. He described how the Greater Toronto Area has become a global hub of innovation for AI in recent years. Advancements in machine learning technology and the availability of large datasets have opened new frontiers for AI in the global economy. Goldfarb explained how the rapid growth of AI can be boiled down to a lowering of the cost of prediction, which helps humans make better decisions. He explains how concerns over the long-term implications of AI, particularly dystopic fears of computers turning on humanity, are often overstated. Nonetheless our society needs to recognize that the rise of AI has far reaching implications for areas like privacy and labor. Goldfarb is unequivocal that AI is not the end of work; rather it will change the type of work humans do. However, he also asks whether everyone having a job is such a good thing? Perhaps the rise of AI will allow us to change the way our societies function for the better and tackle persistent problems like inequality.

The panel discussion and audience question period tackled many of these central themes. While there was wide agreement on the tremendous societal benefits that AI innovation will bring, notes of caution were expressed. Professor Fehr highlighted how persistent bias in the data upon which machine learning is driven could facilitate computer generated inequality. Professor Crowley warned against the danger of autonomous machines without humans in the loop, arguing that “there should not be a way for artificial intelligence to develop its own way of thinking or act outside of its generated algorithm.” In the end, the growing complexity of our emerging AI ecosystem will undoubtedly present unforeseen challenges to our society. As Professor Bailey noted: “The real worry is that these tools are exploding in complexity and they can do a lot of things that we could not do before, and that is not an AI problem, that is a human problem.”