AI and the future of learning

 By Michelle Leslie

The global artificial intelligence (AI) race is under way, and Canada is heating up its commitment to investments in artificial intelligence thanks in part to the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, which is investing more than 100 million CAD into the next generation of computer technology and talent…

In late 2018, government representatives from Canada joined forces with other G7 leaders and 150 participants—a cross-section of global thought leaders from business, academia, research and government—for a gathering in Montreal to explore the possibilities and potential impacts of machine learning on the global economy.
According to a 2018 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, machine learning will have an enormous impact on future global economies, potentially driving GDP growth by more than 1% per year for a forecasted additional $13 trillion USD in global economic activity by 2030.
Both government and industry are making significant investments in companies and research facilities that are pioneering research and talent development in the field of AI. Manulife awarded close to half a million dollars to the University of Waterloo for their cutting-edge research into AI, and Samsung joined forces with the University of Montreal and McGill University to establish an artificial intelligence center in Montreal, the fourth of its kind in North America.
“There is a huge global interest in artificial intelligence, and a lot of countries are putting in major financial investments, including here in Canada. This is necessary to ensure that we can hang on to our talent pool and our intellectual property”, said Peter van Beek, Co-Director, Waterloo AI institute, University of Waterloo.

Samsung Electronics' AI Center opening in Montreal (

AI’s societal benefits

Peter van Beek, who has worked in the field of artificial intelligence for thirty years, acknowledges that there are challenges with respect to the socially responsible practices of AI. However, he also sees that AI offers tremendous promise for social benefit. For example, at the University of Waterloo, researchers have been able to harness the power of machine learning to help experts share data on wildfires.
Change is also coming in the field of pharmaceutical research, where artificial intelligence is aiding with drug trials.
“When you test a lot of drug combinations, most of them are failures. AI is a way of speeding up the process, because it can help to better predict which ones are more likely to succeed”, van Beek stated.
Beyond boardrooms and across university campuses, machine learning is increasingly becoming integrated into elementary and high school classrooms. Schools in China are using robots to automate the grading process while kids in Harlem are learning to code thanks to Code Next, a collaboration between MIT’s Media Lab and Google that is helping to bring computer science to underserved populations.

In the Code Next's Pilot Labs, MIT and Google introduce a cohort of 8th and 9th graders to the rudiments of Coding and Maker Technologies (

Robots and autism

Approximately one in every 60 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), and boys are nearly four times as likely as girls to receive a diagnosis. Therapy, specialized learning and additional educational resources all come with a high cost.
Enter RoboKind, the company behind a humanoid robot named Milo. Robot therapy works with human therapists and teachers to help autistic children in their learning journey to understand emotions and social interactions. Speaking slower than humans, Milo is able to work with therapists to help autistic children through a series of learning modules supported by videos and visual aids on Milo’s chest.
“We see conservatively up to 50% of students working with Milo in the first one to three months having a life changing experience, most often in self-regulation or learning to regulate their own behaviour”, according to Gregory Firn, Chief Operating Officer at RoboKind.
By helping to chart a new course for autistic children, Milo is showing the tremendous potential of AI to aid in education. Robot therapy, which is currently deployed in 35 U.S. states and four provinces in Canada, is currently helping thousands of students across North America.

Milo never gets tired, never gets frustrated, and is always consistent, which is important when teaching through repetition (

Combating illiteracy

AI is also carving out a path to help with childhood literacy issues. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy reported that close to 100 million Americans struggle with literacy. Adults with literacy issues are more likely to make less money and suffer from lower self-esteem, and they’re more likely to have children who struggle with their own literacy. The unemployment and health costs of low literacy levels totals more than $400 billion USD.
Learning Ovations is hoping to change that. It’s an in-depth computer program that assesses a student’s reading abilities and develops a customized program to help kids succeed in reading. Taking out the guess work for teachers, Learning Ovations offers up instructional information to help teachers foster literacy success in the classroom through smart computer and data compilation.

A2i and Special Education Outcomes

“Robots can guide and facilitate and eventually assess learning, but they won’t replace the role, judgement or importance of human interaction”, says Firn. “Constructing, creating and authoring meaning is uniquely human”.
Machine learning and new computer technology is proving that there are vast opportunities for AI to impact our economic and social landscape for the better. The possibilities are limited only by our capabilities and the opportunities we create to push the boundaries of what technology can do.

READ MORE: The human cost of automation by Michelle Leslie

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.