Monday, 6 March 2017

Canada Must Focus Its AI Vision If It Wants to Lead the World

The following appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper on March 3, 2017. Although I do not have time to do much research and write academic papers, I seem to be finding time to write editorial and opinion pieces for newspapers.

In McKinsey & Company’s Disruptive Technology, technologies containing artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to create tens of trillions of dollars in economic impact by the year 2025. Similarly, Gartner, Inc. lists machine learning (a subset of AI) as one of the top 10 strategic technology trends for 2017. Yet another technology fad? Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine any industry that won’t be affected by software applications with “smart” capabilities.

For several decades, Canada has been a global powerhouse in artificial intelligence research. The Universities of Alberta and Toronto and the Université de Montréal have world-class AI research centers, and several other universities have strong programs. With all the media attention that AI is suddenly getting, it is critical that Canada leverage this enormous technology asset.

AI technology has been widely deployed for over 20 years – but it is invisible to most people. Whether it is being used for credit card fraud detection (banking), online product recommendations (sales), or in computer games (entertainment), AI is already impacting the world. But the potential of new machine learning technology is so much greater. Soon we will see safe driverless cars, life-saving medical advances, and the Internet of things  – all powered by AI technology. But unless we do something about it, foreign companies will supply most of this technology to Canadians, even though key parts of it will have been invented in Canada.

Whereas AI in Canadian academia is world class, what can we say about the role of AI in Canadian industry? My AI research colleagues and I are challenged to identify even a few Canadian companies that employ ten or more AI specialists, yet it is easy to name numerous international companies that have hundreds of such employees, many of them graduates of our excellent AI programs. What does the rest of the world know that Canadian companies do not?

Montreal-based Maluuba is a rare example of a commercially successful Canadian AI company. It was recently purchased by Microsoft. This is reflective of the current state of our high-tech economy and a warning as to where we are going.

I have graduated 75 Masters and PhD students in my 33 years as a Professor at the University of Alberta. Less than half remain in Canada; few are employed in jobs that take advantage of their AI background. My colleagues have similar statistics. We train the best and the brightest only to watch them leave our country to enrich the rest of the world, or stay in Canada and likely work in a non-AI field of computing.

Now is the time for Canada to think big and act boldly. Canada has few major high-tech success stories to brag about. With AI, we have most of the ingredients for changing the world; now we need the winning recipe:
  • Retain and grow the academic expertise. Non-Canadian companies and universities are increasingly targeting Canada’s AI talent, and with them the most valuable asset – intellectual property (IP).
  • Grow the AI workforce. Our universities can feed ideas and graduates to industry, but Canadian industry has limited capacity to exploit this and innovate. We must create a larger and strategic receptor capacity in industry for AI expertise. With few innovative companies and high-quality job opportunities, our graduates leave.
  • Promote entrepreneurship. Create an environment that encourages faculty and students to turn their research into new companies of products and services. Critical to success in this area is putting in place the local support and early-stage funding necessary to maximize the chances of market success. Make it easier to quickly launch, acquire funding, and build a successful business.
  • Diversify the economy. AI technology will touch almost every aspect of industry. We can develop new products and services and export them to the world, but we need existing Canadian companies to invest in R&D areas that employ our AI talent. By doing so, we can help erase the 20th century stigma of our economy as one of commodity extraction and exportation. Our highly skilled workforce is not a resource to be extracted and then exported to the world. Move our resource-based economy to an idea-based economy
  • Aspire to be the global leader in the area of artificial intelligence. Such bravado may seem un-Canadian. There’s nothing wrong with having a bold vision, as long as the country follows through with a bold implementation that’s oriented towards capturing wealth from the AI expertise we create for Canada.
None of this is hard; it just takes time, a mind-set change, and focused funding to make this happen. There is nothing novel or specific to artificial intelligence in the above recipe. Commercializing IP is how the new wealth is created in the 21st century global economy. Canada needs to be doing that across all sectors and industries.

It is tempting to throw money at this Canadian AI opportunity and hope that everything works out. By all means, start the process of putting the necessary funding in place (through federal, provincial, and industrial initiatives). However, reflection is needed to come up with a vision that maximizes the chances of achieving major economic outcomes for Canada.

History tells us that it a top down political approach is unlikely to succeed. Conversely, a purely academic-led initiative will not produce the commercialization to scale or marketable products and services that will have economic impact. The solution has to be one that creates a continuum between pure research (solutions looking for problems; long-term view) and applied research (problems looking for solutions; short-/medium-term view), and introduces policy strategies that support our best companies who are aiming to scale up globally.

Experience also tells us that a single national initiative is unlikely to be effective (centralized). Conversely, a combination of purely local solutions will lack vision and coordination (decentralized). The solution must be to work together under a national umbrella but have hyperlocal organization.

The end result must be to create, grow, and scale up Canadian companies globally and in the process bring significant private and public wealth to Canada. With innovative ideas and excellent graduates coming from our universities, the opportunities for industry innovation in this area will multiply. We can reset Canada’s future in artificial intelligence technology from extraction to attraction.

Jonathan Schaeffer
Fellow of the Associate for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence
Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Alberta

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Artificial Intelligence in Canada

On Saturday January 14, Canada's National Newspaper, the Globe and Mail, published an opinion piece arguing that the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) were important technologies today, and that Canada should create a national AI Institute. All well and good, except that the article was Toronto-centric and ignored the reality that there are several outstanding AI/ML groups in Canada. Needless to say, the article generated negative feedback from the major AI groups in Canada, including the University de Montreal, University of British Columbia, and, of course, the University of Alberta.

When I first read the opinion piece, I was livid. I decided to write a rebuttal to the Globe and Mail. After writing a longer piece that expressed what I really thought (for the therapeutic value), I then edited it down into a short letter that was more politically correct. Below is the article that appeared today.

Please look at the graphic that follows (referenced in the article but not printed). It shows that the University of Alberta is proudly ranked third in the world in this area. Note also that the size of our research team is smaller, and in some cases considerably smaller, than our peers.

I am proud that we have been able to build a world class AI/ML research team at the University of Alberta.

Globe and Mail, Saturday January 14.
AI Institute? Think national

Re AI Is The Future, And Canada Must Seize It (Report on Business, Jan. 7):

Canada has a rich history of research into artificial intelligence (AI), going back more than 40 years. Globally, we punch well above our weight. For example, in the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the Computer Science Rankings site places the University of Alberta third, the University of Toronto seventh, and includes three other Canadian universities in the top 50.

Two machine-learning areas that are generating the most excitement today, deep learning (Geoffrey Hinton) and reinforcement learning (Richard Sutton), were pioneered by Canadian academics.

The article’s authors assert that “We must build a world-leading AI Institute in Toronto.” Why Toronto? The authors, who extol the virtues of Toronto to the exclusion of the excellence elsewhere in Canada, call for a “very significant funding commitment” to build the AI Institute. What about the recent federal government investment of $93-million directed to the Université de Montréal for machine-learning research?

As a Torontonian now working at the University of Alberta, I am acutely sensitive to the “Toronto-is-the-centre-of-the-world” syndrome. A Toronto-based AI Institute would be a way to solve a University of Toronto problem that its “machine-learning researchers are spread across many departments in disparate buildings already at capacity.” There is not much that is of national benefit in that.

Jonathan Schaeffer, dean, Faculty of Science, University of Alberta; Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning rankings from

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Hacking the U.S. Election

A shorter version of the following article was published in the Edmonton Journal on Saturday November 26, 2016. Several other media outlets also picked up the article.


At the heart of the principle of democracy is the election process. If the integrity of that process is in question, then every citizen who values freedom must be concerned.

On Wednesday [November 23, 2016], New York Magazine came out with a report that “Hillary Clinton is being urged by a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers to call for a recount in three swing states won by Donald Trump.” The report stated that, “The group… believes they’ve found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked.” In other words, precisely what Donald Trump repeatedly stated during the run-up to November 8: “This election is rigged.”

As a Canadian, I have no say in who the United States chooses to lead their country. But as someone who looks to the United States as the flag-bearer for democracy around the world, this report raises alarm bells. Nothing has been proven, but I believe the allegations must be taken seriously.

The issue at hand is the credibility of electronic voting. According to New York Magazine, there is data to show that, “in Wisconsin, Clinton received 7 percent fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic-voting machines compared with counties that used optical scanners and paper ballots.” The three states in question represent the margin between having President-elect Trump or President-elect Clinton.

There are two parts to this investigation, both of which hinge on understanding the principles of mathematics and computer science. First, is there data to suggest that something is amiss? Nothing has yet been revealed by the scientists, other than through the news media. Without seeing the data, it is impossible to pass judgement. However, the source is J. Alex Halderman, a Professor of Computer Science and the director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society. Dr. Halderman has an impressive track record and established credibility.

Here is a simple way of thinking about the claim being made (pardon my mathematical imprecision). Pretend you have two coins and you flip each of them 100 times. Assuming that the coins have no imperfections, you would expect each coin to get around 50 heads and 50 tails. The first coin yields the expected result, 50-50. But flipping the second coin results in 55 heads and 45 tails. This result is possible, but mathematically the chances are small (roughly 1 in 20). What if now you flip the second coin 1000 times and get 550 heads? This is still the same percentage of heads, but now the chances of this occurring drop to around 1 in 6000. With virtual certainty something is amiss.

Loosely speaking, the above analogy describes what is being alleged. Data from one set of counties, those that did not use the voting machines, matches expectations (possibly even matching exit polling results). Data from the set of counties using voting machines does not. We have not yet seen the data analysis from the scientists to support their claims, but if the New York Magazine report is accurate, then there is an anomaly that must be investigated. It is not something that one can write off as an everyday possibility. It is like asking the question “What are my chances of winning a big lottery prize today?” Possible, but unlikely to say the least.

The second part of the investigation is proof. If something untoward has happened, can it be proven? Sadly, this may be difficult to do. The electronic voting machines are run by computer software. They could have been programmed to ignore some votes, something small enough that it might escape attention. That should be easy to prove: just examine the machine’s software. That won’t necessarily reveal anything, as clever hackers often leave no trace of what they have done. The program code would be simple: “Wait until November 8, 2016. On that date ignore every 10th vote for the Democrats. At 6AM on November 9, 2016 erase this code.” Malicious programs do precisely this to cover their tracks.

If the software shows no sign of tampering, can you prove that somehow malicious software was put on the machines? Maybe. It depends on many factors, including the machine, the hardware/software safeguards built into it, whether it was connected to a network, and who might have had access to it. At one extreme, if all the electronic voting machines were connected to the Internet, a hacker might be able to break into the machines and download a “special” version of the software. At the other extreme, none of the machines are connected to the network, and someone had to go to each machine individually and put new software on it. Showing that someone could access the machine without permission would be cause for concern, but still does not prove that the vote counts are wrong.

There is another way that you can prove that the machines were flawed. It may be that some counties that used electronic voting machines have an independent record of the voting. For example, what if it was discovered that these counties averaged 1,000 people casting votes (as recorded at the polling station) but the machine only registered 900 actual votes? If there is independent consistent evidence such as this, it will be compelling proof that the results are flawed. Of course, even this would not tell us who was responsible or who was the legitimate winner of the election.

Where does this leave us? The evidence for voting irregularities must be made public and assessed. If there is cause for concern, then an investigation must be launched. There may be no physical evidence to support the contention that the voting machines were compromised. What do you do, however, if you can prove that the voting pattern recorded by these machines was so unusual that the result had only a one-in-one-thousand chance of occurring? Does that constitute reasonable doubt in the legal sense? Does that meet the bar for casting doubt on the result of the U.S. election?

The U.S. election was a bitter contest, perhaps the most partisan election in that nation’s history. Now a credible source may have data to suggest there are widespread voting anomalies. Every American citizen – Republicans and Democrats – must be very concerned and insist on a thorough bipartisan investigation. Going forward, the United States must put in place a process that allows all methods of vote counting to be audited. As a Canadian, it is important to me that the American election result is above reproach. Anything less than that is an affront to democracy. Canada and the world are watching.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Marion Tinsley: 20 Years Later

Time is relentless. I cannot fathom that 20 years have passed since the day that Dr. Marion Tinsley -- World Checkers Champion extraordinare -- passed away. Between 1990 and 1994, Marion was my obsession, as my Chinook team battled him for supremacy at playing checkers. His passing left a deep emotional scar on me, as the follow story relates (taken from my book One Jump Ahead, Springer-Verlag, 1997 and 2009).

I talked with Marion Tinsley in January during the Lafferty match. At the time he sounded good, and he was in excellent spirits. He wanted to play Chinook again, possibly as soon as August. “Any time you feel up to it, we’re ready to play,” I told him. The prize money left over from Boston ensured that another Tinsley-Chinook match would happen once Marion’s health recovered. I never mentioned it to him, but the reality of the situation was that there would never be another match like London or Boston. The Boston debacle [the unfortunate ending of the 1994 World Man-Machine Championship] guaranteed that big-name sponsors wouldn’t be interested in sponsoring a high-profile checkers match again.

A few days later I heard that he had suffered a setback. When I called him up to find out how he was feeling, Marion told me that he was good but weak. He described his recent chemotherapy treatment, his last of six, as having “burned my insides.” Just a minor setback on the road to full recovery, he asserted. When I spoke to him a few weeks later, he sounded much stronger and more optimistic about playing competitive checkers again.

I hoped that Marion would write the promised letter to the ACF, [American Checker Federation] but I didn’t want to bother him about it. Obviously, he had more important things on his mind.

In March he decided to go to Houston, Texas, to be near his sister, Mary Clark, and her family. On March 16 I received the bad news: new tests done by the doctors in Houston revealed that Marion had cancer in his bone marrow, pancreas, and liver. The news stunned everyone; for the first time I realized that Marion was dying. One should never take cancer lightly, but somehow I was sure that he would pull through. Marion had fought adversity before, and he had always won. Fighting cancer of the pancreas was a formidable challenge, but from everything Marion had told me, I naively thought that he was winning the battle. Now the painful truth sank in: I’d been living an illusion. Marion was going to die. It was hard to believe. 

Marion Tinsley (1927-1995)

For a week I tried to deny the inevitable. It just couldn’t be happening. But on March 26 Mary Clark told me that Marion’s condition was deteriorating. He was in intensive care and very weak. He had only a few months, or maybe weeks, to live. I heard the words, but I just couldn’t comprehend them. 

In my life I’ve only had to confront the death of a friend or family member a few times. In every case it happened suddenly, and I had no chance to prepare for it. In Marion’s case I now had advance warning. I wanted to see him one more time. Because of my teaching commitments I asked my travel agent to arrange a trip to Houston for the weekend of April 1 and 2. 
On March 29, I sent the following e-mail to the Chinook team members: 
Tinsley’s cancer has spread and he is in critical condition in a Houston hospital. He has only a few months/weeks to live. I am flying down to Houston this weekend to see him. I have spent the last 6 years of my life obsessed with catching him. At the end of the rainbow, there is no pot of gold, only the stark reality of the cruelty of life.
Later that day I canceled the trip. I wasn’t able to find a reasonable connection to Houston since most of the flights were already full. I could take a contorted flight path from Edmonton to Houston, spend a day with Marion, and then return via a roundabout way, getting into Edmonton at 2 A.M. on Monday, April 3, just in time for my 8 A.M. class. After a vain attempt to find a better arrangement, I decided to postpone the flight to the next weekend when I would have a better flight connection. 

On the morning of April 1 Mary Clark told me that Marion’s condition was deteriorating rapidly and that time was running out. The promise of a few months from only a few days before was wrong. On April 3 Marion was going to move from the hospital to his sister’s home to die. Now I knew that I couldn’t wait. I arranged to fly to Houston in the early morning of April 4. 

I was in touch with Marion every day now, talking for as long as he had the strength. Whenever I talked to him, he was in good spirits, but his voice was weak. On Sunday, April 2, we talked at length. He sounded good for the first few minutes but his strength ebbed as the conversation carried on. He said that he was “ready to go”; to see Jesus and his friends and family. Before he left, however, he said that he had two more things to do. First, he wanted to write a letter to Bob Bishop  [President of Silicon Graphics, the sponsor of the Man-Machine match] thanking him for his kindness in Boston. Second, he wanted to fulfill his promise to me and write a letter to the ACF setting the record straight about the events in Boston. I told him it wasn’t necessary; there were other things more important right now. But he insisted he would write the letters. 

Marion reiterated several times that he was “ready to go.” He was intrigued about a dream he had had the night before. He wouldn’t tell it to me; he wanted to wait until the next day to tell his mentor, Brother Walden. Apparently it had something to do with “boat people.” He felt that the dream was very important, and he wanted to understand its meaning.

Later that day, Rob Lake talked with Marion:
He was glad to hear from me and we talked for a little over five minutes. At the time he was with his sister and nephew, and a nurse was administering oxygen to him. He sounded weak and he was coughing a lot. He mentioned his main regret during the past four years was not writing a book about his experiences with Chinook. I told him that Jonathan was coming to visit him and he would be bringing something with him that Marion would find very interesting (I did not tell him it was the manuscript for the book Jonathan has been writing about Chinook. We also talked briefly about Dallas and his visit to Edmonton last summer, but at times it was difficult to understand what he was saying.
Mary Clark phoned me in the afternoon of Monday, April 3. She told me that Marion had lapsed into a coma. Brother Walden was to arrive at the hospital that evening. Mary was sure that Marion was using every ounce of strength to hold out until he arrived. 

I was very tired on Monday April 3 and went to bed uncharacteristically early. The telephone rang shortly after 10 P.M., and my hand stumbled in the dark trying to find the receiver. As soon as I heard Mary’s voice, I knew what she was about to tell me. Marion Tinsley, an extraordinary man whom I felt privileged to have known, was gone. He stayed alive long enough for Brother Walden to arrive and give his blessings, and then he passed away peacefully. 

There was no possibility of sleeping now. I left my bedroom to sit downstairs in the dark and be alone with my thoughts. I’d known Marion for less than five years and had met him on only six occasions (Tupelo 1990; Edmonton 1990; Petal 1992; London 1992; Edmonton 1994; Boston 1994), yet he had an enormous impact on my life. I was consumed with my quest to defeat him with Chinook. All I could think about now, however, was his friendship, support, and talent. I went to my computer and sent out the following message to the electronic world: 

From: jonathan
To: ChinookTeam

Subject: Marion Tinsley 1927-1995
Date: Monday April 3 22:48 19
Marion Tinsley passed away quietly tonight after battling cancer for the past eight months. As recently as January, he thought he had won the hardest battle of his life, but a relapse revealed that the cancer had spread.
Tinsley was the greatest checkers player who ever lived and, arguably, the most dominant champion in any competitive sport. Over the last 45 years of his career he remained undefeated, winning every match and tournament he played in. Over the thousands of games played in this period, he lost less than 10. He was as close to perfection as is possible in a human.
As a man, Tinsley was exceedingly kind and loved by everyone. He leaves behind many friends.
He was a great friend of the Chinook team. He could have said “no” when faced with the prospect of defending his world championship title against a computer. Instead he accepted the challenge, relishing the chance to face some tough opposition. We are grateful for the opportunity he gave us, and the privilege of playing the very best.
We shall deeply miss him. Rest in peace.
The last time I saw Marion was when I visited him in the hospital in Boston on August 21, 1994. I had my chance for a last visit with Marion, but I blew it. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to say “thank you.” I wanted to show him the book I was writing on Chinook. I missed my chance. My procrastination will haunt me for the rest of my life.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Maligne Canyon -- 30 Years and Counting

On the January 30th weekend, I organized my 30th annual Department of Computing Science winter retreat to Jasper in the beautiful Canadian Rocky Mountains. It was a wonderful trip – great company, spectacular scenery, invigorating winter sports, relaxing pools, and, for some, (expensive) shopping.

Jasper in the summer is gorgeous, and the Icefields Parkway that connects Banff to Jasper is considered one of the most scenic drives in the word. I became infatuated with the winter side of Jasper when I visited the town in January 1985 and had my first experience going to the bottom of Maligne Canyon. Having moved to Alberta from Toronto just over a year before, it was a moving experience to behold the beauty of nature in a setting that, quite frankly, does not exist in Ontario (they even call Blue Mountain a mountain – what a joke!). I was hooked, so for the following winter I decided to organize a Department of Computing Science trip to Jasper, ostensibly as a "ski trip". For me personally, the skiing was secondary to a visit to the spectacular Maligne Canyon. At the time, I had no inkling that the trip would catch on and still be going strong after 30 years.

In the spring and summer, Maligne Canyon is the home of a raging river. The water is 50 meters below the ground as it flows through the canyon; all you can do is stand on a bridge and look down at the torrent of water battering its way through the narrow passageway. But in the winter, the river is frozen and it is easy to get down to it and walk on its frozen surface.

Maligne Canyon is part of a long underground cave system. In fact, the Canyon may have once been a cave whose roof fell in. In the spring and summer, melting causes the river to rise as a massive amount of water tries to force its way through the narrow corridor. However, below the riverbed are large caverns. In the winter, there is little water in the river and it drains into the cavern. Hence, in some winters all the water disappears under ground leaving a dry river bed. If there is water flowing, you can easily find places where the water seeps through cracks and disappears into the ground. In the summer it is the reverse; you can find places where the water is spurting out of the ground, the consequence of the underground caverns being full.

A Maligne Canyon trek consists of going to the north end of the Canyon where the walls are the lowest, climbing down onto the river's frozen surface, and then walking back into the Canyon. Along the way you will find frozen and active waterfalls, impressive ice carvings (the artistic side of Nature), large rooms carved out by thousands of years of erosion, and even the odd fossil. At one place you can crawl on your belly into part of the underground caverns.

Jasper in the summer and the winter is a magical place. Most people visit the Rocky Mountains in the summer, and those who come in the winter usually do so for the skiing. Maligne Canyon is spectacular all year round. In the winter one must go to the bottom to see its inner beauty. In the summer from the top you can look down incredulously at inaccessibility of the winter places that you visited.

I have been to the bottom of Maligne Canyon every year since 1985, oftentimes more than once per year. Perhaps my annual winter retreat will hit the 50 year mark. Stay tuned!
Looking down 50 meters into the Canyon. In the summer, the canyon is filled with the water of a raging water. In the winter, the water disappears into the underground caverns, leaving the bottom of the gorge walkable in most places.
A dozen intrepid adventurers ready to start the Maligne Canyon trek.
The “Shower Curtain” waterfall. Some years the mist from the flowing water freezes, creating a thin curtain of translucent ice that covers the entire waterfall (hence the name). Not so this year.
The river surface freezes, and then the water underneath the ice drains way into the caverns below. This creates a cavity, allowing one to crawl underneath the ice and onto the actual riverbed. Here an adventurer is emerging from underneath the ice.
At the bottom of one of the frozen waterfalls.
The foot of the Queen of Maligne waterfall. An intrepid soul (not from our group) is preparing to climb up the face of the waterfall.