Microsoft is trying to further its AI for Good initiative's goals with its funding to the University of Waterloo. Credit: Microsoft

Published: June 25th, 2019

As part of its $115 million USD investment through the AI for Good initiative, Microsoft Corp. has announced a partnership with the University of Waterloo’s Artificial Intelligence Institute (Waterloo.ai).

AI for Good, which includes sub-initiatives like AI for Earth, aims to solve major world issues by partnering with and funding projects that match up with the goals of the initiative.

“We really focused on providing funding, technology, and expertise, to not just individuals, but also non-profit organizations, academic organizations, and commercial organizations who are really tackling society’s big societal challenges,” said Khalil Alfar, general manager of Azure Cloud and enterprise business unit at Microsoft, in an interview with IT World Canada. “That’s our way of contributing to leveraging technology for the good of humanity.”

The partnership with the University of Waterloo, which will include funding for one year with the possibility of an extension based on success, will provide $270,000 USD in funding for eight projects that Waterloo.ai proposed to Microsoft.

Waterloo.ai put out a call for proposals – which had to include an operational summary and a budgetary outline – and received about 35. It had its researchers look into the viability of these projects, before finally presenting them to Microsoft.

Driving change with AI

Chris McIntyre, the managing director of the Waterloo AI Institute, said that applying AI to some of the world’s largest issues has the potential to truly drive change by leveraging the data available.

“When you look at artificial intelligence, it has a tremendous amount of potential in a number of areas,” said McIntyre in an interview with IT World Canada. “But when you really start to look at some big social issues in our world… whether it be in the realm of healthcare, whether it be in climate change environments, poverty, disaster management, a lot of them have a common thread. They’re very data-rich areas.”

Challenging and impactful problems like these are what brings in the best talents, said McIntrye, and he said he believes that this initiative will do just that.

“Researchers want to work on challenging, meaningful problems. So when you look at combining AI and its technical possibilities… with some real problems in the world that are of great magnitude, it’s very interesting not only to the University of Waterloo and our mandate but also to the particular researcher.”

Khalil Alfar says that the work being done at the University of Waterloo is what drew Microsoft to them. Credit: Twitter

While Alfar does cite Microsoft’s long history of collaboration as a factor in selecting the University of Waterloo for this partnership, he was sure to point out that the innovation they are seeing from the institution is what brought this all together.

“We’re just really excited about the University of Waterloo and their reputation on driving groundbreaking innovation,” said Alfar. “We are looking forward to bringing in the best of the best in Canada and internationally into the University and growing the next level of skill set in Canada. And that’s why we’re excited about the work they’re doing; bringing their mathematics and engineering students together to form this organization called Waterloo.ai. And we want to be part of it.”

Pooling knowledge from diverse research fields

Something that McIntyre said he thinks makes Waterloo.ai unique is that it pulls experts from the University’s many research fields like arts, applied health sciences, environment, and science, as opposed to just computer sciences.

“I think that’s what sets us apart. Typically a lot of research focuses on what I call more of the foundational elements of AI. What we’re really focused on is how do you take those technologies and bring them to the real world with the applied side of that,” explained McIntyre. “As you move from the lab… you cross a lot of other areas that you need to consider. And that ranges from how are we going to interact with these algorithms in the various environments we might be in, to things like ethics and bias, policy, regulation, economics in terms of business models. So we really focus our research on the applied side. And to do that we need that multidisciplinary approach.”

One of the projects that were selected for funding is being led by Alex Wong, associate professor of systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo, who has proposed using AI to aid those with autism in understanding the emotions of those around them.

“Individuals with autism often have a harder time reading all facial and gestural expressions, such as confusing scared and surprised, which can lead to miscommunication and can often lead to difficulties with social and communication skills,” explained Wong in an email to IT World Canada. “In this project, cameras will constantly identify and analyze the facial and gestural expressions of those in the environment using deep learning AI.”