AI vs. Humanity panel discussion comes to Concordia

“Let’s Talk: AI” series hosted by Concordia student groups encouraged re-thinking of common ideas around artificial intelligence.

At 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, the School of Community, Public Affairs, and Policy studies (SCPA) and the Engineering & Computer Science Association (ECA) of Concordia came together to co-host a panel on artificial intelligence (AI) titled Let’s Talk: AI Vs Humanity. Moderated by Margie Mendell, professor with Concordia’s SCPA and co-founder of the SCPA 301 course, the panel discussion focussed on the future of AI use and its implications for society.

The panel consisted of Suzanne Kite, an interdisciplinary Indigenous artist and academic, and entrepreneurs Thierry Lindon and Vincent Boucher. Lindon is the co-founder of the Federation of African Canadian Economics and, and Boucher has worked with developing the applications of AI since 2002, with Montreal.AI and Quebec.AI.

“It’s such an important topic,” said Mendell, discussing the pertinence of the panel. “Until recently, people were either dazzled by AI or terrified by what it could possibly do to our lives and societies. The reality really depends on the ability to regulate it,” she said.

As the first American Indigenous artist to use machine learning in her works, Kite’s perspective of AI is shaped by her indigeneity. “[My PhD at Concordia is] basically all the ways that my [Indigenous] community makes relationships now with non-human beings,” she explained.

“I started interviewing lots of elders, lots of community members, and it became clear that in my community and in probably every community all over the world, there’s almost nowhere you can’t find a community or village or a family that has a relationship with a non-human being,” Kite said, before touching on the kinship many individuals feel with their non-human companions.

Boucher’s experience in technology has shaped his perspective on AI and artificial general intelligence (AGI) as a tools to be used for economic development. “I see it as the second industrial revolution,” he said. AGI refers to a kind of artificial intelligence that is able to learn how to do human tasks.

“I’m developing an AGI agent that is able to look at a screen and have access to a keyboard and a mouse and is able to do any kind of task that a human can do,” he said. “People should have AGI agents that are working for them, advancing their capabilities, and developing new business to create wealth.”

Lindon similarly sees AI as a technology to be used for the betterment of society. His work has involved building an algorithm that searches the internet for funding opportunities for underrepresented groups. “We match entrepreneurs, non-profits, institutions, and municipalities with money based on their unique profiles and needs,” he said, describing his work.

Although Lindon is interested in using AI as a tool for social change, he acknowledged that it may be relatively inaccessible for marginalized communities right now. “Black people and Indigenous people have been on the short hand of the economic playing field that is Canada,” he said. “We make sure we’re leveling it.” 

Despite these differences in the applications of AI, all three panelists expressed hope for the future of AI. “I see AI as fire, it can burn you or it can warm you,” Lindon concluded.


Simply Scientific: Cultivating plants by farming fish

Imagine cultivating plants with endless sources of natural fertilizer. Considering Earth’s current state, such a process would answer many of our problems regarding food production and the viability of the soil.

Yet, such a sustainable system broke from the imaginary and is now known as aquaponics.

Historically practiced by Aztec and Chinese populations, aquaponics is a combination of fish farming (aquaculture) and soilless farming (hydroponics). Yielding as much as 12 times the amount of crops produced in soil per square foot, aquaponics successfully addresses farming in resource-scarce areas.

But how does it work?

The three main components of aquaponics are plants, fish, and bacteria.

Fish excrete high amounts of ammonia, increasing the toxicity of their environment. That water is then transferred to another tank, where bacteria (Nitrosomonas) break down the ammonia into nitrate. Pumped to the last tank, the nitrate-concentrated water will be utilized as nutrients for the plants. The water, now purified by the plants, is redirected to the fish tank for the process to be repeated.

Some companies in Canada have started using this farming technique. AquaGrow Farms is an aquaponics company and one of its operations runs at The Mississauga Food Bank to provide fresh food to people in need. Around 900,000 Canadians make use of food banks every month, on average.

Aquaponics has incredible potential because of its low need for resources. This helps lower any environmental impact while producing quality goods that are in high demand.


Superhero Fatigue: The fine line between innovation and saturation

Superhero films are all the rage with audiences, but how long can this golden age last?

Superheroes have flooded our screens, be it in record-setting, box-office blockbusters like The Avengers or beloved Netflix original series, such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

But why did comic book characters become so omnipresent? There has been a paradigm shift in the entertainment industry, and this trend seems here to stay, as Doctor Strange’s success has hinted at.  Despite their continuous popularity, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and tired of the sheer amount of superhero-related content being produced on a regular basis. How did Hollywood become so obsessed with caped crusaders?

According to Lance Ulanoff, editor-at-large and chief correspondent at Mashable, an entertainment company, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was the first film to catapult the superhero genre into mainstream entertainment. Despite being incredibly popular upon its release, the film has aged poorly, as the visuals and storyline that were so revolutionary at the time now feel cliché and outdated.

However, in 2008, The Dark Knight and Iron Man gave the superhero genre the momentum it needed to become the next big thing in Hollywood. Both movies impressed fans and critics alikeHeath Ledger was even awarded a postmortem Academy Award for his portrayal of the Joker.

The incredible success of both films gave their production companies, DC and Marvel, the indication that a cinematic universe featuring their iconic characters would be well-received by audiences. Fast forward a few years and several films later, and the drawback of these expanding universes is that they are becoming increasingly hard to keep up with. What with the series offered on Netflix and the constant introduction of new heroes, it is no longer feasible to see only one superhero movie a year and still be in the loop when it comes to the superhero genre.

With the growth of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, the concern is that the extensive story connecting cities, countries and worlds in these universes will collapse under its own weight. With each addition to the franchises, the studios will have to jump through more and more hoops and push the boundaries of creativity in order to keep audiences interested.

According to Business Insider, Marvel and DC are projected to release 24 superhero films within the next five years. It might prove impossible to sustain a high-quality output within such extreme production conditions. It will be interesting to see how the studios reinvigorate the genre while sticking to the source content, and whether fans will cling to the franchise or gradually flock to the next big thing. Just like westerns, musicals and film noir, all of these genres had their golden ages followed by a slow decline—so, too, will the superhero genre.

Student Life

Businesses love your mean reviews

JMSB hosted a talk on social media’s role for innovation in businesses

Concordia’s Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research organized an event on social media’s role in business innovation on Oct. 4.

Professors, students and businesspeople attended the morning conference to listen to Frank T. Piller, associate dean, professor and chair of Technology & Innovation Management at RWTH Aachen University’s school of business and economics in Germany.

The event, hosted by Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, explored social media as a useful tool to improve the ways companies and individuals innovate.

Piller said that many of “the ideas that we get nowadays come from social media, and this leads to a better discipline for the communications profession.” He explained many big companies are now using innovative strategies to incite consumers to buy their products.  Piller used the drugstore brand Nivea as an example, to explain why their deodorant is successful.

“If you were the product manager of Nivea and wanted to innovate your business, what would you do?” Piller asked.

He said he would advise product managers to visit online forums where people discuss, for example, deodorants and their unwanted effectssuch as a yellow stain on a white fabric.  “Agencies then dive-in, and look into these user communities to fix the problem by creating better products,” said Piller. “When it comes to innovations, it’s all about functionality.”  Companies also consider how factors such as the product’s shape or organic ingredients might excite users into buying the product, he said.

Piller added that, as a result, Nivea is one of the cheapest, most successful and popular brands in drugstores around the world, especially in Europe.

Innovation often starts on the periphery of the organization, he said. When companies are creating or improving a product, they look beyond product management—they look at online forums, for example. According to recent studies conducted by the Social Media Examiner, there has been a slight increase in forum participation in recent years.

Photo by Alex Hutchins

Piller said that frustrated customers often provide useful critiques or reviews about products in online forums. Companies just have to visit these websites and take the comments seriously, in order to find ways to improve their product and the consumer’s experience.

According to Piller, there are two main ways to innovate: with the help of frustrated users or dedicated firm activity.

He said there are three ways to profit from lead user inventions.  The online Business Dictionary defines a lead user as a “specific type of user of a product or service that is on the leading edge of significant market trends.”  Therefore, a lead user reflects and finds a way to make something better, before the mainstream has found that way.  They are able to think about how that product or service can work better to reach its full potential.

The first way to profit from a lead user is to search for lead user inventions either online or through contacts.  The second way is to observe users in online communities such as Facebook and Twitter, which is also known as “netnography.” The third way is to provide infrastructure for users to co-create. Co-creating involves developing collaborative skills, learning to engage, selecting the right participants and using creative problem-solving techniques.

“Our emphasis is to absorb the innovation that is out there in the market,” Piller said.

Piller said innovation revolves around customer co-creation and creating an interaction space for lead users, product managers and companies— where they can engage, use creative problem-solving techniques and give feedback.

He said that the ultimate goal is to have a more balanced approach when it comes to innovation—since there is not just one social media platform.

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