Category Archives: public relations

The Broad Institute gives us another reason to love CRISPR

More and more, this resembles a public relations campaign. First, CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) gene editing is going to be helpful with COVID-19 and now it can help us to deal with conservation issues. (See my May 26, 2020 posting about the latest CRISPR doings as of May 7, 2020; included is a brief description of the patent dispute between Broad Institute and UC Berkeley and musings about a public relations campaign.)

A May 21, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces how CRISPR could be useful for conservation,

The gene-editing technology CRISPR has been used for a variety of agricultural and public health purposes — from growing disease-resistant crops to, more recently, a diagnostic test for the virus that causes COVID-19. Now a study involving fish that look nearly identical to the endangered Delta smelt finds that CRISPR can be a conservation and resource management tool, as well. The researchers think its ability to rapidly detect and differentiate among species could revolutionize environmental monitoring.

Caption: Longfin smelt can be difficult to differentiate from endangered Delta smelt. Here, a longfin smelt is swabbed for genetic identification through a CRISPR tool called SHERLOCK. Credit: Alisha Goodbla/UC Davis

A May 21, 2020 University of California at Davis (UC Davis) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kat Kerlin, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The study, published in the journal Molecular Ecology Resources, was led by scientists at the University of California, Davis, and the California Department of Water Resources in collaboration with MIT Broad Institute [emphasis mine].

As a proof of concept, it found that the CRISPR-based detection platform SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter Unlocking) [emphasis mine] was able to genetically distinguish threatened fish species from similar-looking nonnative species in nearly real time, with no need to extract DNA.

“CRISPR can do a lot more than edit genomes,” said co-author Andrea Schreier, an adjunct assistant professor in the UC Davis animal science department. “It can be used for some really cool ecological applications, and we’re just now exploring that.”

WHEN GETTING IT WRONG IS A BIG DEAL

The scientists focused on three fish species of management concern in the San Francisco Estuary: the U.S. threatened and California endangered Delta smelt, the California threatened longfin smelt and the nonnative wakasagi. These three species are notoriously difficult to visually identify, particularly in their younger stages.

Hundreds of thousands of Delta smelt once lived in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta before the population crashed in the 1980s. Only a few thousand are estimated to remain in the wild.

“When you’re trying to identify an endangered species, getting it wrong is a big deal,” said lead author Melinda Baerwald, a project scientist at UC Davis at the time the study was conceived and currently an environmental program manager with California Department of Water Resources.

For example, state and federal water pumping projects have to reduce water exports if enough endangered species, like Delta smelt or winter-run chinook salmon, get sucked into the pumps. Rapid identification makes real-time decision making about water operations feasible.

FROM HOURS TO MINUTES

Typically to accurately identify the species, researchers rub a swab over the fish to collect a mucus sample or take a fin clip for a tissue sample. Then they drive or ship it to a lab for a genetic identification test and await the results. Not counting travel time, that can take, at best, about four hours.

SHERLOCK shortens this process from hours to minutes. Researchers can identify the species within about 20 minutes, at remote locations, noninvasively, with no specialized lab equipment. Instead, they use either a handheld fluorescence reader or a flow strip that works much like a pregnancy test — a band on the strip shows if the target species is present.

“Anyone working anywhere could use this tool to quickly come up with a species identification,” Schreier said.

OTHER CRYPTIC CRITTERS

While the three fish species were the only animals tested for this study, the researchers expect the method could be used for other species, though more research is needed to confirm. If so, this sort of onsite, real-time capability may be useful for confirming species at crime scenes, in the animal trade at border crossings, for monitoring poaching, and for other animal and human health applications.

“There are a lot of cryptic species we can’t accurately identify with our naked eye,” Baerwald said. “Our partners at MIT are really interested in pathogen detection for humans. We’re interested in pathogen detection for animals as well as using the tool for other conservation issues.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rapid and accurate species identification for ecological studies and monitoring using CRISPR‐based SHERLOCK by Melinda R. Baerwald, Alisha M. Goodbla, Raman P. Nagarajan, Jonathan S. Gootenberg, Omar O. Abudayyeh, Feng Zhang, Andrea D. Schreier. Molecular Ecology Resources https://doi.org/10.1111/1755-0998.13186 First published: 12 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

The business of CRISPR

SHERLOCK™, is a trademark for what Sherlock Biosciences calls one of its engineering biology platforms. From the Sherlock Biosciences Technology webpage,

What is SHERLOCK™?

SHERLOCK is an evolution of CRISPR technology, which others use to make precise edits in genetic code. SHERLOCK can detect the unique genetic fingerprints of virtually any DNA or RNA sequence in any organism or pathogen. Developed by our founders and licensed exclusively from the Broad Institute, SHERLOCK is a method for single molecule detection of nucleic acid targets and stands for Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing. It works by amplifying genetic sequences and programming a CRISPR molecule to detect the presence of a specific genetic signature in a sample, which can also be quantified. When it finds those signatures, the CRISPR enzyme is activated and releases a robust signal. This signal can be adapted to work on a simple paper strip test, in laboratory equipment, or to provide an electrochemical readout that can be read with a mobile phone.

However, things get a little more confusing when you look at the Broad Institute’s Developing Diagnostics and Treatments webpage,

Ensuring the SHERLOCK diagnostic platform is easily accessible, especially in the developing world, where the need for inexpensive, reliable, field-based diagnostics is the most urgent

SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing) is a CRISPR-based diagnostic tool that is rapid, inexpensive, and highly sensitive, with the potential to have a transformative effect on research and global public health. The SHERLOCK platform can detect viruses, bacteria, or other targets in clinical samples such as urine or blood, and reveal results on a paper strip — without the need for extensive specialized equipment. This technology could potentially be used to aid the response to infectious disease outbreaks, monitor antibiotic resistance, detect cancer, and more. SHERLOCK tools are freely available [emphasis mine] for academic research worldwide, and the Broad Institute’s licensing framework [emphasis mine] ensures that the SHERLOCK diagnostic platform is easily accessible in the developing world, where inexpensive, reliable, field-based diagnostics are urgently needed.

Here’s what I suspect. as stated, the Broad Institute has free SHERLOCK licenses for academic institutions and not-for-profit organizations but Sherlock Biosciences, a Broad Institute spinoff company, is for-profit and has trademarked SHERLOCK for commercial purposes.

Final thoughts

This looks like a relatively subtle campaign to influence public perceptions. Genetic modification or genetic engineering as exemplified by the CRISPR gene editing technique is a force for the good of all. It will help us in our hour of need (COVID-19 pandemic) and it can help us save various species and better manage our resources.

This contrasts greatly with the publicity generated by the CRISPR twins situation where a scientist claimed to have successfully edited the germline for twins, Lulu and Nana. This was done despite a voluntary, worldwide moratorium on germline editing of viable embryos. (Search the terms [either here or on a standard search engine] ‘CRISPR twins’, ‘Lulu and Nana’, and/or ‘He Jiankui’ for details about the scandal.

In addition to presenting CRISPR as beneficial in the short term rather than the distant future, this publicity also subtly positions the Broad Institute as CRISPR’s owner.

Or, maybe I’m wrong. Regardless, I’m watching.

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives first authorization for CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) use in COVID-19 crisis

Clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene editing has been largely confined to laboratory use or tested in agricultural trials. I believe that is true worldwide excepting the CRISPR twin scandal. (There are numerous postings about the CRISPR twins here including a Nov. 28, 2018 post, a May 17, 2019 post, and a June 20, 2019 post. Update: It was reported (3rd. para.) in December 2019 that He had been sentenced to three years jail time.)

Connie Lin in a May 7, 2020 article for Fast Company reports on this surprising decision by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Note: A link has been removed),

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted Emergency Use Authorization to a COVID-19 test that uses controversial gene-editing technology CRISPR.

This marks the first time CRISPR has been authorized by the FDA, although only for the purpose of detecting the coronavirus, and not for its far more contentious applications. The new test kit, developed by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Sherlock Biosciences, will be deployed in laboratories certified to carry out high-complexity procedures and is “rapid,” returning results in about an hour as opposed to those that rely on the standard polymerase chain reaction method, which typically requires six hours.

The announcement was made in the FDA’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: May 7, 2020 Daily Roundup (4th item in the bulleted list), Or, you can read the May 6, 2020 letter (PDF) sent to John Vozella of Sherlock Biosciences by the FDA.

As well, there’s the May 7, 2020 Sherlock BioSciences news release (the most informative of the lot),

Sherlock Biosciences, an Engineering Biology company dedicated to making diagnostic testing better, faster and more affordable, today announced the company has received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 kit for the detection of the virus that causes COVID-19, providing results in approximately one hour.

“While it has only been a little over a year since the launch of Sherlock Biosciences, today we have made history with the very first FDA-authorized use of CRISPR technology, which will be used to rapidly identify the virus that causes COVID-19,” said Rahul Dhanda, co-founder, president and CEO of Sherlock Biosciences. “We are committed to providing this initial wave of testing kits to physicians, laboratory experts and researchers worldwide to enable them to assist frontline workers leading the charge against this pandemic.”

The Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 test kit is designed for use in laboratories certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA), 42 U.S.C. §263a, to perform high complexity tests. Based on the SHERLOCK method, which stands for Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing, the kit works by programming a CRISPR molecule to detect the presence of a specific genetic signature – in this case, the genetic signature for SARS-CoV-2 – in a nasal swab, nasopharyngeal swab, oropharyngeal swab or bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) specimen. When the signature is found, the CRISPR enzyme is activated and releases a detectable signal. In addition to SHERLOCK, the company is also developing its INSPECTR™ platform to create an instrument-free, handheld test – similar to that of an at-home pregnancy test – that utilizes Sherlock Biosciences’ Synthetic Biology platform to provide rapid detection of a genetic match of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“When our lab collaborated with Dr. Feng Zhang’s team to develop SHERLOCK, we believed that this CRISPR-based diagnostic method would have a significant impact on global health,” said James J. Collins, co-founder and board member of Sherlock Biosciences and Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science for MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering. “During what is a major healthcare crisis across the globe, we are heartened that the first FDA-authorized use of CRISPR will aid in the fight against this global COVID-19 pandemic.”

Access to rapid diagnostics is critical for combating this pandemic and is a primary focus for Sherlock Biosciences co-founder and board member, David R. Walt, Ph.D., who co-leads the Mass [Massachusetts] General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation.

“SHERLOCK enables rapid identification of a single alteration in a DNA or RNA sequence in a single molecule,” said Dr. Walt. “That precision, coupled with its capability to be deployed to multiplex over 100 targets or as a simple point-of-care system, will make it a critical addition to the arsenal of rapid diagnostics already being used to detect COVID-19.”

This development is particularly interesting since there was a major intellectual property dispute over CRISPR between the Broad Institute (a Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] joint initiative), and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). The Broad Institute mostly won in the first round of the patent fight, as I noted in a March 15, 2017 post but, as far as I’m aware, UC Berkeley is still disputing that decision.

In the period before receiving authorization, it appears that Sherlock Biosciences was doing a little public relations and ‘consciousness raising’ work. Here’s a sample from a May 5, 2020 article by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

The revolutionary genetic technique better known for its potential to cure thousands of inherited diseases could also solve the challenge of Covid-19 diagnostic testing, scientists announced on Tuesday. A team headed by biologist Feng Zhang of the McGovern Institute at MIT and the Broad Institute has repurposed the genome-editing tool CRISPR into a test able to quickly detect as few as 100 coronavirus particles in a swab or saliva sample.

Crucially, the technique, dubbed a “one pot” protocol, works in a single test tube and does not require the many specialty chemicals, or reagents, whose shortage has hampered the rollout of widespread Covid-19 testing in the U.S. It takes about an hour to get results, requires minimal handling, and in preliminary studies has been highly accurate, Zhang told STAT. He and his colleagues, led by the McGovern’s Jonathan Gootenberg and Omar Abudayyeh, released the protocol on their STOPCovid.science website.

Because the test has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it is only for research purposes for now. But minutes before speaking to STAT on Monday, Zhang and his colleagues were on a conference call with FDA officials about what they needed to do to receive an “emergency use authorization” that would allow clinical use of the test. The FDA has used EUAs to fast-track Covid-19 diagnostics as well as experimental therapies, including remdesivir, after less extensive testing than usually required.

For an EUA, the agency will require the scientists to validate the test, which they call STOPCovid, on dozens to hundreds of samples. Although “it is still early in the process,” Zhang said, he and his colleagues are confident enough in its accuracy that they are conferring with potential commercial partners who could turn the test into a cartridge-like device, similar to a pregnancy test, enabling Covid-19 testing at doctor offices and other point-of-care sites.

“It could potentially even be used at home or at workplaces,” Zhang said. “It’s inexpensive, does not require a lab, and can return results within an hour using a paper strip, not unlike a pregnancy test. This helps address the urgent need for widespread, accurate, inexpensive, and accessible Covid-19 testing.” Public health experts say the availability of such a test is one of the keys to safely reopening society, which will require widespread testing, and then tracing and possibly isolating the contacts of those who test positive.

If you have time, do read Begley’s in full.

Elder care robot being tested by Washington State University team

I imagine that at some point the Washington State University’s (WSU) ‘elder care’ robot will be tested by senior citizens as opposed to the students described in a January 14, 2019 WSU news release (also on EurekAlert) by Will Ferguson,

A robot created by Washington State University scientists could help elderly people with dementia and other limitations live independently in their own homes.

The Robot Activity Support System, or RAS, uses sensors embedded in a WSU smart home to determine where its residents are, what they are doing and when they need assistance with daily activities.

It navigates through rooms and around obstacles to find people on its own, provides video instructions on how to do simple tasks and can even lead its owner to objects like their medication or a snack in the kitchen.

“RAS combines the convenience of a mobile robot with the activity detection technology of a WSU smart home to provide assistance in the moment, as the need for help is detected,” said Bryan Minor, a postdoctoral researcher in the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Minor works in the lab of Diane Cook, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the WSU Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems.

For the last decade, Cook and Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, a WSU professor of psychology, have led CASAS researchers in the development of smart home technologies that could enable elderly adults with memory problems and other impairments to live independently.

Currently, an estimated 50 percent of adults over the age of 85 need assistance with every day activities such as preparing meals and taking medication and the annual cost for this assistance in the US is nearly $2 trillion.

With the number of adults over 85 expected to triple by 2050, Cook and Schmitter-Edgecombe hope that technologies like RAS and the WSU smart home will alleviate some of the financial strain on the healthcare system by making it easier for older adults to live alone.

“Upwards of 90 percent of older adults prefer to age in place as opposed to moving into a nursing home,” Cook said. “We want to make it so that instead of bringing in a caregiver or sending these people to a nursing home, we can use technology to help them live independently on their own.”

RAS is the first robot CASAS researchers have tried to incorporate into their smart home environment. They recently published a study in the journal Cognitive Systems Research that demonstrates how RAS could make life easier for older adults struggling to live independently

In the study CASAS researchers recruited 26 undergraduate and graduate students [emphasis mine] to complete three activities in a smart home with RAS as an assistant.

The activities were getting ready to walk the dog, taking medication with food and water and watering household plants.

When the smart home sensors detected a human failed to initiate or was struggling with one of the tasks, RAS received a message to help.

The robot then used its mapping and navigation camera, sensors and software to find the person and offer assistance.

The person could then indicate through a tablet interface that they wanted to see a video of the next step in the activity they were performing, a video of the entire activity or they could ask the robot to lead them to objects needed to complete the activity like the dog’s leash or a granola bar from the kitchen.

Afterwards the study participants were asked to rate the robot’s performance. Most of the participants rated RAS’ performance favorably and found the robot’s tablet interface to be easy to use. They also reported the next step video as being the most useful of the prompts.

“While we are still in an early stage of development, our initial results with RAS have been promising,” Minor said. “The next step in the research will be to test RAS’ performance with a group of older adults to get a better idea of what prompts, video reminders and other preferences they have regarding the robot.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Robot-enabled support of daily activities in smart home environment by Garrett Wilson, Christopher Pereyda, Nisha Raghunath, Gabriel de la Cruz, Shivam Goel, Sepehr Nesaei, Bryan Minor, Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, Matthew E.Taylor, Diane J.Cook. Cognitive Systems Research Volume 54, May 2019, Pages 258-272 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogsys.2018.10.032

This paper is behind a paywall.

Other ‘caring’ robots

Dutch filmmaker, Sander Burger, directed a documentary about ‘caredroids’ for seniors titled ‘Alice Cares’ or ‘Ik ben Alice’ in Dutch. It premiered at the 2015 Vancouver (Canada) International Film Festival and was featured in a January 22, 2015 article by Neil Young for the Hollywood Reporter,


The benign side of artificial intelligence enjoys a rare cinematic showcase in Sander Burger‘s Alice Cares (Ik ben Alice), a small-scale Dutch documentary that reinvents no wheels but proves as unassumingly delightful as its eponymous, diminutive “care-robot.” Touching lightly on social and technological themes that are increasingly relevant to nearly all industrialized societies, this quiet charmer bowed at Rotterdam ahead of its local release and deserves wider exposure via festivals and small-screen outlets.

… Developed by the US firm Hanson Robotics, “Alice”— has the stature and face of a girl of eight, but an adult female’s voice—is primarily intended to provide company for lonely seniors.

Burger shows Alice “visiting” the apartments of three octogenarian Dutch ladies, the contraption overcoming their hosts’ initial wariness and quickly forming chatty bonds. This prototype “care-droid” represents the technology at a relatively early stage, with Alice unable to move anything apart from her head, eyes (which incorporate tiny cameras) and mouth. Her body is made much more obviously robotic in appearance than the face, to minimize the chances of her interlocutors mistaking her for an actual human. Such design-touches are discussed by Alice’s programmer in meetings with social-workers, which Burger and his editor Manuel Rombley intersperses between the domestic exchanges that provide the bulk of the running-time.

‘Alice’ was also featured in the Lancet’s (a general medical journal) July 18, 2015 article by Natalie Harrison,

“I’m going to ask you some questions about your life. Do you live independently? Are you lonely?” If you close your eyes and start listening to the film Alice Cares, you would think you were overhearing a routine conversation between an older woman and a health-care worker. It’s only when the woman, Martha Remkes, ends the conversation with “I don’t feel like having a robot in my home, I prefer a human being” that you realise something is amiss. In the Dutch documentary Alice Cares, Alice Robokind, a prototype caredroid developed in a laboratory in Amsterdam, is sent to live with three women who require care and company, with rather surprising results

Although the idea of health robots has been around for a couple of decades, research into the use of robots with older adults is a fairly new area. Alex Mihailidis, from the Intelligent Assistive Technology and Systems Lab [University of Toronto] in Toronto, ON, Canada, explains: “For carers, robots have been used as tools that can help to alleviate burden typically associated with providing continuous care”. He adds that “as robots become more viable and are able to perform common physical tasks, they can be very valuable in helping caregivers complete common tasks such as moving a person in and out of bed”. Although Japan and Korea are regarded as the world leaders in this research, the European Union and the USA are also making progress. At the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, for example, researchers are working to develop more complex sensor and navigation technology for robots that work alongside people and on assisted living prosthetics technologies. This research is part of a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University that was awarded £6 million in funding as part of a wider £85 million investment into industrial technology in the UK Government’s Eight Great Technologies initiative. Robotics research is clearly flourishing and the global market for service and industrial robots is estimated to reach almost US$60 billion by 2020.

The idea for Alice Cares came to director Sander Burger after he read about a group of scientists at the VU University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands who were about to test a health-care robot on older people. “The first thing I felt was some resentment against the idea—I was curious why I was so offended by the whole idea and just called the scientists to see if I could come by to see what they were doing. …

… With software to generate and regulate Alice’s emotions, an artificial moral reasoner, a computational model of creativity, and full access to the internet, the investigators hoped to create a robotic care provider that was intelligent, sensitive, creative, and entertaining. “The robot was specially developed for social skills, in short, she was programmed to make the elderly women feel less lonely”, explains Burger.

Copyright © 2015 Alice Cares KeyDocs

Both the Young and Harrison articles are well worth the time, should you have enough to read them. Also, there’s an Ik ben Alice website (it’s in Dutch only).

Meanwhile, Canadians can look at Humber River Hospital (HHR; Toronto, Ontario) for a glimpse at another humanoid ‘carebot’, from a July 25, 2018 HHR Foundation blog entry,

Earlier this year, a special new caregiver joined the Child Life team at the Humber River Hospital. Pepper, the humanoid robot, helps our Child Life Specialists decrease patient anxiety, increase their comfort and educate young patients and their families. Pepper embodies perfectly the intersection of compassion and advanced technology for which Humber River is renowned.

Pepper helps our Child Life Specialists decrease patient anxiety, increase their comfort and educate young patients.

Humber River Hospital is committed to making the hospital experience a better one for our patients and their families from the moment they arrive and Pepper the robot helps us do that! Pepper is child-sized with large, expressive eyes and a sweet voice. It greets visitors, provides directions, plays games, does yoga and even dances. Using facial recognition to detect human emotions, it adapts its behaviour according to the mood of the person with whom it’s interacting. Pepper makes the Hospital an even more welcoming place for everyone it encounters.

Humber currently has two Peppers on staff: one is used exclusively by the Child Life Program to help young patients feel at ease and a second to greet patients and their families in the Hospital’s main entrance.

While Pepper robots are used around the world in such industries as retail and hospitality, Humber River is the first hospital in Canada to use Pepper in a healthcare setting. Using dedicated applications built specifically for the Hospital, Pepper’s interactive touch-screen display helps visitors find specific departments, washrooms, exits and more. In addition to answering questions and sharing information, Pepper entertains, plays games and is always available for a selfie.

I’m guessing that they had a ‘soft’ launch for Pepper because there’s an Oct. 25, 2018 HHR news release announcing Pepper’s deployment,

Pepper® can greet visitors, provide directions, play games, do yoga and even dance

Humber River Hospital has joined forces with SoftBank Robotics America (SBRA) to launch a new pilot program with Pepper the humanoid robot.  Beginning this week, Pepper will greet, help guide, engage and entertain patients and visitors who enter the hospital’s main entrance hall.

“While the healthcare sector has talked about this technology for some time now, we are ambitious and confident at Humber River Hospital to make the move and become the first hospital in Canada to pilot this technology,” states Barbara Collins, President and CEO, Humber River Hospital. 


Pepper by the numbers:
Stands 1.2 m (4ft) tall and weighs 29 kg (62lb)
Features three cameras – two 2 HD cameras and one 3D depth sensor – to “see” and interact with people
20 engines in Pepper’s head, arms and back control its precise movements
A 10-inch chest-mounted touchscreen tablet that Pepper uses to convey information and encourage input

Finally, there’s a 2012 movie, Robot & Frank (mentioned here before in this Oct. 13, 2017 posting; scroll down to Robots and pop culture subsection) which provides an intriguing example of how ‘carebots’ might present unexpected ethical challenges. Hint: Frank is a senior citizen and former jewel thief who decides to pass on some skills.

Final thoughts

It’s fascinating to me that every time I’ve looked at articles about robots being used for tasks usually performed by humans that some expert or other sweetly notes that robots will be used to help humans with tasks that are ‘boring’ or ‘physical’ with the implication that humans will focus on more rewarding work, from Harrison’s Lancet article (in a previous excerpt),

… Alex Mihailidis, from the Intelligent Assistive Technology and Systems Lab in Toronto, ON, Canada, explains: “For carers, robots have been used as tools that can help to alleviate burden typically associated with providing continuous care”. He adds that “as robots become more viable and are able to perform common physical tasks, they can be very valuable in helping caregivers …

For all the emphasis on robots as taking over burdensome physical tasks, Burger’s documentary makes it clear that these early versions are being used primarily to provide companionship. Yes, HHR’s Pepper® is taking over some repetitive tasks, such as giving directions, but it’s also playing and providing companionship.

As for what it will mean ultimately, that’s something we, as a society, need to consider.

The Royal Bank of Canada reports ‘Humans wanted’ and some thoughts on the future of work, robots, and artificial intelligence

It seems the Royal Bank of Canada ((RBC or Royal Bank) wants to weigh in and influence what is to come with regard to what new technologies will bring us and how they will affect our working lives.  (I will be offering my critiques of the whole thing.)

Launch yourself into the future (if you’re a youth)

“I’m not planning on being replaced by a robot.” That’s the first line of text you’ll see if you go to the Royal Bank of Canada’s new Future Launch web space and latest marketing campaign and investment.

This whole endeavour is aimed at ‘youth’ and represents a $500M investment. Of course, that money will be invested over a 10-year period which works out to $50M per year and doesn’t seem quite so munificent given how much money Canadian banks make (from a March 1, 2017 article by Don Pittis for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] news website),

Yesterday [February 28, 2017] the Bank of Montreal [BMO] said it had made about $1.5 billion in three months.

That may be hard to put in context until you hear that it is an increase in profit of nearly 40 per cent from the same period last year and dramatically higher than stock watchers had been expecting.

Not all the banks have done as well as BMO this time. The Royal Bank’s profits were up 24 per cent at $3 billion. [emphasis mine] CIBC [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce] profits were up 13 per cent. TD [Toronto Dominion] releases its numbers tomorrow.

Those numbers would put the RBC on track to a profit of roughly $12B n 2017. This means  $500M represents approximately 4.5% of a single year’s profits which will be disbursed over a 10 year period which makes the investment work out to approximately .45% or less than 1/2 of one percent. Paradoxically, it’s a lot of money and it’s not that much money.

Advertising awareness

First, there was some advertising (in Vancouver at least),

[downloaded from http://flinflononline.com/local-news/356505]

You’ll notice she has what could be described as a ‘halo’. Is she an angel or, perhaps, she’s an RBC angel? After all, yellow and gold are closely associated as colours and RBC sports a partially yellow logo. As well, the model is wearing a blue denim jacket, RBC’s other logo colour.

Her ‘halo’ is intact but those bands of colour bend a bit and could be described as ‘rainbow-like’ bringing to mind ‘pots of gold’ at the end of the rainbow.  Free association is great fun and allows people to ascribe multiple and/or overlapping ideas and stories to the advertising. For example, people who might not approve of imagery that hearkens to religious art might have an easier time with rainbows and pots of gold. At any rate, none of the elements in images/ads are likely to be happy accidents or coincidence. They are intended to evoke certain associations, e.g., anyone associated with RBC will be blessed with riches.

The timing is deliberate, too, just before Easter 2018 (April 1), suggesting to some us, that even when the robots arrive destroying the past, youth will rise up (resurrection) for a new future. Or, if you prefer, Passover and its attendant themes of being spared and moving to the Promised Land.

Enough with the semiotic analysis and onto campaign details.

Humans Wanted: an RBC report

It seems the precursor to Future Launch, is an RBC report, ‘Humans Wanted’, which itself is the outcome of still earlier work such as this Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E) report, Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work, March 2017 (authors: Creig Lamb and Sarah Doyle), which features a quote from RBC’s President and CEO (Chief Executive Officer) David McKay,

“Canada’s future prosperity and success will rely on us harnessing the innovation of our entire talent pool. A huge part of our success will depend on how well we integrate this next generation of Canadians into the workforce. Their confidence, optimism and inspiration could be the key to helping us reimagine traditional business models, products and ways of working.”  David McKay, President and CEO, RBC

There are a number of major trends that have the potential to shape the future of work, from climate change and resource scarcity to demographic shifts resulting from an aging population and immigration. This report focuses on the need to prepare Canada’s youth for a future where a great number of jobs will be rapidly created, altered or made obsolete by technology.

Successive waves of technological advancements have rocked global economies for centuries, reconfiguring the labour force and giving rise to new economic opportunities with each wave. Modern advances, including artificial intelligence and robotics, once again have the potential to transform the economy, perhaps more rapidly and more dramatically than ever before. As past pillars of Canada’s economic growth become less reliable, harnessing technology and innovation will become increasingly important in driving productivity and growth. 1, 2, 3

… (p. 2 print; p. 4 PDF)

The Brookfield Institute (at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) report is worth reading if for no other reason than its Endnotes. Unlike the RBC materials, you can find the source for the information in the Brookfield report.

After Brookfield, there was the RBC Future Launch Youth Forums 2017: What We Learned  document (October 13, 2017 according to ‘View Page Info’),

In this rapidly changing world, there’s a new reality when it comes to work. A degree or diploma no longer guarantees a job, and some of the positions, skills and trades of today won’t exist – or be relevant – in the future.

Through an unprecedented 10-year, $500 million commitment, RBC Future LaunchTM  is focused on driving real change and preparing today’s young people for the future world of work, helping them access the skills, job experience and networks that will enable their success.

At the beginning of this 10-year journey RBC® wanted to go beyond research and expert reports to better understand the regional issues facing youth across Canada and to hear directly from young people and organizations that work with them. From November 2016 to May 2017, the RBC Future Launch team held 15 youth forums across the country, bringing together over 430 partners, including young people, to uncover ideas and talk through solutions to address the workforce gaps Canada’s youth face today.

Finally,  a March 26, 2018 RBC news release announces the RBC report: ‘Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption’,

Automation to impact at least 50% of Canadian jobs in the next decade: RBC research

Human intelligence and intuition critical for young people and jobs of the future

  • Being ‘human’ will ensure resiliency in an era of disruption and artificial intelligence
  • Skills mobility – the ability to move from one job to another – will become a new competitive advantage

TORONTO, March 26, 2018 – A new RBC research paper, Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption, has revealed that 50% of Canadian jobs will be disrupted by automation in the next 10 years.

As a result of this disruption, Canada’s Gen Mobile – young people who are currently transitioning from education to employment – are unprepared for the rapidly changing workplace. With 4 million Canadian youth entering the workforce over the next decade, and the shift from a jobs economy to a skills economy, the research indicates young people will need a portfolio of “human skills” to remain competitive and resilient in the labour market.

“Canada is at a historic cross-roads – we have the largest generation of young people coming into the workforce at the very same time technology is starting to impact most jobs in the country,” said Dave McKay, President and CEO, RBC. “Canada is on the brink of a skills revolution and we have a responsibility to prepare young people for the opportunities and ambiguities of the future.”

‘There is a changing demand for skills,” said John Stackhouse, Senior Vice-President, RBC. “According to our findings, if employers and the next generation of employees focus on foundational ‘human skills’, they’ll be better able to navigate a new age of career mobility as technology continues to reshape every aspect of the world around us.”

Key Findings:

  • Canada’s economy is on target to add 2.4 million jobs over the next four years, virtually all of which will require a different mix of skills.
  • A growing demand for “human skills” will grow across all job sectors and include: critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving.
  • Rather than a nation of coders, digital literacy – the ability to understand digital items, digital technologies or the Internet fluently – will be necessary for all new jobs.
  • Canada’s education system, training programs and labour market initiatives are inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate the new skills economy, resulting in roughly half a million 15-29 year olds who are unemployed and another quarter of a million who are working part-time involuntarily.
  • Canadian employers are generally not prepared, through hiring, training or retraining, to recruit and develop the skills needed to ensure their organizations remain competitive in the digital economy.

“As digital and machine technology advances, the next generation of Canadians will need to be more adaptive, creative and collaborative, adding and refining skills to keep pace with a world of work undergoing profound change,” said McKay. “Canada’s future prosperity depends on getting a few big things right and that’s why we’ve introduced RBC Future Launch.”

RBC Future Launch is a decade-long commitment to help Canadian youth prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. RBC is committed to acting as a catalyst for change, bringing government, educators, public sector and not-for-profits together to co-create solutions to help young people better prepare for the future of the work through “human skills” development, networking and work experience.

Top recommendations from the report include:

  • A national review of post-secondary education programs to assess their focus on “human skills” including global competencies
  • A national target of 100% work-integrated learning, to ensure every undergraduate student has the opportunity for an apprenticeship, internship, co-op placement or other meaningful experiential placement
  • Standardization of labour market information across all provinces and regions, and a partnership with the private sector to move skills and jobs information to real-time, interactive platforms
  • The introduction of a national initiative to help employers measure foundational skills and incorporate them in recruiting, hiring and training practices

Join the conversation with Dave McKay and John Stackhouse on Wednesday, March 28 [2018] at 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. EDT at RBC Disruptors on Facebook Live.

Click here to read: Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption.

About the Report
RBC Economics amassed a database of 300 occupations and drilled into the skills required to perform them now and projected into the future. The study groups the Canadian economy into six major clusters based on skillsets as opposed to traditional classifications and sectors. This cluster model is designed to illustrate the ease of transition between dissimilar jobs as well as the relevance of current skills to jobs of the future.

Six Clusters
Doers: Emphasis on basic skills
Transition: Greenhouse worker to crane operator
High Probability of Disruption

Crafters: Medium technical skills; low in management skills
Transition: Farmer to plumber
Very High Probability of Disruption

Technicians: High in technical skills
Transition: Car mechanic to electrician
Moderate Probability of Disruption

Facilitators: Emphasis on emotional intelligence
Transition: Dental assistant to graphic designer
Moderate Probability of Disruption

Providers: High in Analytical Skills
Transition: Real estate agent to police officer
Low Probability of Disruption

Solvers: Emphasis on management skills and critical thinking
Transition: Mathematician to software engineer
Minimal Probability of Disruption

About RBC
Royal Bank of Canada is a global financial institution with a purpose-driven, principles-led approach to delivering leading performance. Our success comes from the 81,000+ employees who bring our vision, values and strategy to life so we can help our clients thrive and communities prosper. As Canada’s biggest bank, and one of the largest in the world based on market capitalization, we have a diversified business model with a focus on innovation and providing exceptional experiences to our 16 million clients in Canada, the U.S. and 34 other countries. Learn more at rbc.com.‎

We are proud to support a broad range of community initiatives through donations, community investments and employee volunteer activities. See how at http://www.rbc.com/community-sustainability/.

– 30 – 

The report features a lot of bulleted points, airy text (large fonts and lots of space between the lines), inoffensive graphics, and human interest stories illustrating the points made elsewhere in the text.

There is no bibliography or any form of note telling you where to find the sources for the information in the report. The 2.4M jobs mentioned in the news release are also mentioned in the report on p. 16 (PDF) and is credited in the main body of the text to the EDSC. I’m not up-to-date on my abbreviations but I’m pretty sure it does not stand for East Doncaster Secondary College or East Duplin Soccer Club. I’m betting it stands for Employment and Social Development Canada. All that led to visiting the EDSC website and trying (unsuccessfully) to find the report or data sheet used to supply the figures RBC quoted in their report and news release.

Also, I’m not sure who came up with or how they developed the ‘crafters, ‘doers’, ‘technicians’, etc. categories.

Here’s more from p. 2 of their report,

CANADA, WE HAVE A PROBLEM. [emphasis mine] We’re hurtling towards the 2020s with perfect hindsight, not seeing what’s clearly before us. The next generation is entering the workforce at a time of profound economic, social and technological change. We know it. [emphasis mine] Canada’s youth know it. And we’re not doing enough about it.

RBC wants to change the conversation, [emphasis mine] to help Canadian youth own the 2020s — and beyond. RBC Future Launch is our 10-year commitment to that cause, to help young people prepare for and navigate a new world of work that, we believe, will fundamentally reshape Canada. For the better. If we get a few big things right.

This report, based on a year-long research project, is designed to help that conversation. Our team conducted one of the biggest labour force data projects [emphasis mine] in Canada, and crisscrossed the country to speak with students and workers in their early careers, with educators and policymakers, and with employers in every sector.

We discovered a quiet crisis — of recent graduates who are overqualified for the jobs they’re in, of unemployed youth who weren’t trained for the jobs that are out there, and young Canadians everywhere who feel they aren’t ready for the future of work.

Sarcasm ahead

There’s nothing like starting your remarks with a paraphrased quote from a US movie about the Apollo 13 spacecraft crisis as in, “Houston, we have a problem.” I’ve always preferred Trudeau (senior) and his comment about ‘keeping our noses out of the nation’s bedrooms’. It’s not applicable but it’s more amusing and a Canadian quote to boot.

So, we know we’re having a crisis which we know about but RBC wants to tell us about it anyway (?) and RBC wants to ‘change the conversation’. OK. So how does presenting the RBC Future Launch change the conversation? Especially in light of the fact, that the conversation has already been held, “a year-long research project … Our team conducted one of the biggest labour force data projects [emphasis mine] in Canada, and crisscrossed the country to speak with students and workers in their early careers, with educators and policymakers, and with employers in every sector.” Is the proposed change something along the lines of ‘Don’t worry, be happy; RBC has six categories (Doers, Crafters, Technicians, Facilitators, Providers, Solvers) for you.’ (Yes, for those who recognized it, I’m referencing I’m referencing Bobby McFerrin’s hit song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy.)

Also, what data did RBC collect and how do they collect it? Could Facebook and other forms of social media have been involved? (My March 29, 2018 posting mentions the latest Facebook data scandal; scroll down about 80% of the way.)

There are the people leading the way and ‘changing the conversation’ as it were and they can’t present logical, coherent points. What kind of conversation could they possibly have with youth (or anyone else for that matter)?

And, if part of the problem is that employers are not planning for the future, how does Future Launch ‘change that part of the conversation’?

RBC Future Launch

Days after the report’s release,there’s the Future Launch announcement in an RBC March 28, 2018 news release,

TORONTO, March 28, 2017 – In an era of unprecedented economic and technological change, RBC is today unveiling its largest-ever commitment to Canada’s future. RBC Future Launch is a 10-year, $500-million initiative to help young people gain access and opportunity to the skills, job experience and career networks needed for the future world of work.

“Tomorrow’s prosperity will depend on today’s young people and their ability to take on a future that’s equally inspiring and unnerving,” said Dave McKay, RBC president and CEO. “We’re sitting at an intersection of history, as a massive generational shift and unprecedented technological revolution come together. And we need to ensure young Canadians are prepared to help take us forward.”

Future Launch is a core part of RBC’s celebration of Canada 150, and is the result of two years of conversations with young Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

“Young people – Canada’s future – have the confidence, optimism and inspiration to reimagine the way our country works,” McKay said. “They just need access to the capabilities and connections to make the 21st century, and their place in it, all it should be.”

Working together with young people, RBC will bring community leaders, industry experts, governments, educators and employers to help design solutions and harness resources for young Canadians to chart a more prosperous and inclusive future.

Over 10 years, RBC Future Launch will invest in areas that help young people learn skills, experience jobs, share knowledge and build resilience. The initiative will address the following critical gaps:

  • A lack of relevant experience. Too many young Canadians miss critical early opportunities because they’re stuck in a cycle of “no experience, no job.” According to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 83 per cent of educators believe youth are prepared for the workforce, but only 34 per cent of employers and 44 per cent of young people agree. RBC will continue to help educators and employers develop quality work-integrated learning programs to build a more dynamic bridge between school and work.
  • A lack of relevant skills. Increasingly, young people entering the workforce require a complex set of technical, entrepreneurial and social skills that cannot be attained solely through a formal education. A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum states that by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill-sets of most occupations will be different from today — if that job still exists. RBC will help ensure young Canadians gain the skills, from critical thinking to coding to creative design, that will help them integrate into the workplace of today, and be more competitive for the jobs of tomorrow.
  • A lack of knowledge networks. Young people are at a disadvantage in the job market if they don’t have an opportunity to learn from others and discover the realities of jobs they’re considering. Many have told RBC that there isn’t enough information on the spectrum of jobs that are available. From social networks to mentoring programs, RBC will harness the vast knowledge and goodwill of Canadians in guiding young people to the opportunities that exist and will exist, across Canada.
  • A lack of future readiness. Many young Canadians know their future will be defined by disruption. A new report, Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work, by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, found that 42 per cent of the Canadian labour force is at a high risk of being affected by automation in the next 10 to 20 years. Young Canadians are okay with that: they want to be the disruptors and make the future workforce more creative and productive. RBC will help to create opportunities, through our education system, workplaces and communities at large to help young Canadians retool, rethink and rebuild as the age of disruption takes hold.

By helping young people unlock their potential and launch their careers, RBC can assist them with building a stronger future for themselves, and a more prosperous Canada for all. RBC created The Launching Careers Playbook, an interactive, digital resource focused on enabling young people to reach their full potential through three distinct modules: I am starting my career; I manage interns and I create internship programs. The Playbook shares the design principles, practices, and learnings captured from the RBC Career Launch Program over three years, as well as the research and feedback RBC has received from young people and their managers.

More information on RBC Future Launch can be found at www.rbc.com/futurelaunch.

Weirdly, this news release is the only document which gives you sources for some of RBC’s information. If you should be inclined, you can check the original reports as cited in the news release and determine if you agree with the conclusions the RBC people drew from them.

Cynicism ahead

They are planning to change the conversation, are they? I can’t help wondering what return they’re (RBC)  expecting to make on their investment ($500M over10 years). The RBC is prominently displayed not only on the launch page but in several of the subtopics listed on the page.

There appears to be some very good and helpful information although much of it leads you to using a bank for one reason or another. For example, if you’re planning to become an entrepreneur (and there is serious pressure from the government of Canada on this generation to become precisely that), then it’s very handy that you have easy access to RBC from any of the Future Launch pages. As well, you can easily apply for a job at or get a loan from RBC after you’ve done some of the exercises on the website and possibly given RBC a lot of data about yourself.

For anyone who believes I’m being harsh about the bank, you might want to check out a March 15, 2017 article by Erica Johnson for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Go Public website. It highlights just how ruthless Canadian banks can be,

Employees from all five of Canada’s big banks have flooded Go Public with stories of how they feel pressured to upsell, trick and even lie to customers to meet unrealistic sales targets and keep their jobs.

The deluge is fuelling multiple calls for a parliamentary inquiry, even as the banks claim they’re acting in customers’ best interests.

In nearly 1,000 emails, employees from RBC, BMO, CIBC, TD and Scotiabank locations across Canada describe the pressures to hit targets that are monitored weekly, daily and in some cases hourly.

“Management is down your throat all the time,” said a Scotiabank financial adviser. “They want you to hit your numbers and it doesn’t matter how.”

CBC has agreed to protect their identities because the workers are concerned about current and future employment.

An RBC teller from Thunder Bay, Ont., said even when customers don’t need or want anything, “we need to upgrade their Visa card, increase their Visa limits or get them to open up a credit line.”

“It’s not what’s important to our clients anymore,” she said. “The bank wants more and more money. And it’s leading everyone into debt.”

A CIBC teller said, “I am expected to aggressively sell products, especially Visa. Hit those targets, who cares if it’s hurting customers.”

….

Many bank employees described pressure tactics used by managers to try to increase sales.

An RBC certified financial planner in Guelph, Ont., said she’s been threatened with pay cuts and losing her job if she doesn’t upsell enough customers.

“Managers belittle you,” she said. “We get weekly emails that highlight in red the people who are not hitting those sales targets. It’s bullying.”

Some TD Bank employees told CBC’s Go Public they felt they had to break the law to keep their jobs. (Aaron Harris/Reuters)

Employees at several RBC branches in Calgary said there are white boards posted in the staff room that list which financial advisers are meeting their sales targets and which advisers are coming up short.

A CIBC small business associate who quit in January after nine years on the job said her district branch manager wasn’t pleased with her sales results when she was pregnant.

While working in Waterloo, Ont., she says her manager also instructed staff to tell all new international students looking to open a chequing account that they had to open a “student package,” which also included a savings account, credit card and overdraft.

“That is unfair and not the law, but we were told to do it for all of them.”

Go Public requested interviews with the CEOs of the five big banks — BMO, CIBC, RBC, Scotiabank and TD — but all declined.

If you have the time, it’s worth reading Johnson’s article in its entirety as it provides some fascinating insight into Canadian banking practices.

Final comments and an actual ‘conversation’ about the future of work

I’m torn, It’s good to see an attempt to grapple with the extraordinary changes we are likely to see in the not so distant future. It’s hard to believe that this Future Launch initiative is anything other than a self-interested means of profiting from fears about the future and a massive public relations campaign designed to engender good will. Doubly so since the very bad publicity the banks including RBC garnered last year (2017), as mentioned in the Johnson article.

Also, RBC and who knows how many other vested interests appear to have gathered data and information which they’ve used to draw any number of conclusions. First, I can’t find any information about what data RBC is gathering, who else might have access, and what plans, if any, they have to use it. Second, RBC seems to have predetermined how this ‘future of work’ conversation needs to be changed.

I suggest treading as lightly as possible and keeping in mind other ‘conversations’ are possible. For example, Mike Masnick at Techdirt has an April 3, 2018 posting about a new ‘future of work’ initiative,

For the past few years, there have been plenty of discussions about “the future of work,” but they tend to fall into one of two camps. You have the pessimists, who insist that the coming changes wrought by automation and artificial intelligence will lead to fewer and fewer jobs, as all of the jobs of today are automated out of existence. Then, there are the optimists who point to basically every single past similar prediction of doom and gloom due to innovation, which have always turned out to be incorrect. People in this camp point out that technology is more likely to augment than replace human-based work, and vaguely insist that “the jobs will come.” Whether you fall into one of those two camps — or somewhere in between or somewhere else entirely — one thing I’d hope most people can agree on is that the future of work will be… different.

Separately, we’re also living in an age where it is increasingly clear that those in and around the technology industry must take more responsibility in thinking through the possible consequences of the innovations they’re bringing to life, and exploring ways to minimize the harmful results (and hopefully maximizing the beneficial ones).

That brings us to the project we’re announcing today, Working Futures, which is an attempt to explore what the future of work might really look like in the next ten to fifteen years. We’re doing this project in partnership with two organizations that we’ve worked with multiples times in the past: Scout.ai and R Street.

….

The key point of this project: rather than just worry about the bad stuff or hand-wave around the idea of good stuff magically appearing, we want to really dig in — figure out what new jobs may actually appear, look into what benefits may accrue as well as what harms may be dished out — and see if there are ways to minimize the negative consequences, while pushing the world towards the beneficial consequences.

To do that, we’re kicking off a variation on the classic concept of scenario planning, bringing together a wide variety of individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas to run through a fun and creative exercise to imagine the future, while staying based in reality. We’re adding in some fun game-like mechanisms to push people to think about where the future might head. We’re also updating the output side of traditional scenario planning by involving science fiction authors, who obviously have a long history of thinking up the future, and who will participate in this process and help to craft short stories out of the scenarios we build, making them entertaining, readable and perhaps a little less “wonky” than the output of more traditional scenario plans.

There you have it; the Royal Bank is changing the conversation and Techdirt is inviting you to join in scenario planning and more.

Artificial intelligence (AI) company (in Montréal, Canada) attracts $135M in funding from Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia and others

It seems there’s a push on to establish Canada as a centre for artificial intelligence research and, if the federal and provincial governments have their way, for commercialization of said research. As always, there seems to be a bit of competition between Toronto (Ontario) and Montréal (Québec) as to which will be the dominant hub for the Canadian effort if one is to take Braga’s word for the situation.

In any event, Toronto seemed to have a mild advantage over Montréal initially with the 2017 Canadian federal government  budget announcement that the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), based in Toronto, would launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and with an announcement from the University of Toronto shortly after (from my March 31, 2017 posting),

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

However, Montréal and the province of Québec are no slouches when it comes to supporting to technology. From a June 14, 2017 article by Matthew Braga for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online (Note: Links have been removed),

One of the most promising new hubs for artificial intelligence research in Canada is going international, thanks to a $135 million investment with contributions from some of the biggest names in tech.

The company, Montreal-based Element AI, was founded last October [2016] to help companies that might not have much experience in artificial intelligence start using the technology to change the way they do business.

It’s equal parts general research lab and startup incubator, with employees working to develop new and improved techniques in artificial intelligence that might not be fully realized for years, while also commercializing products and services that can be sold to clients today.

It was co-founded by Yoshua Bengio — one of the pioneers of a type of AI research called machine learning — along with entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados, and the Canadian venture capital fund Real Ventures.

In an interview, Bengio and Gagné said the money from the company’s funding round will be used to hire 250 new employees by next January. A hundred will be based in Montreal, but an additional 100 employees will be hired for a new office in Toronto, and the remaining 50 for an Element AI office in Asia — its first international outpost.

They will join more than 100 employees who work for Element AI today, having left jobs at Amazon, Uber and Google, among others, to work at the company’s headquarters in Montreal.

The expansion is a big vote of confidence in Element AI’s strategy from some of the world’s biggest technology companies. Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia all contributed to the round, and each is a key player in AI research and development.

The company has some not unexpected plans and partners (from the Braga, article, Note: A link has been removed),

The Series A round was led by Data Collective, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, and included participation by Fidelity Investments Canada, National Bank of Canada, and Real Ventures.

What will it help the company do? Scale, its founders say.

“We’re looking at domain experts, artificial intelligence experts,” Gagné said. “We already have quite a few, but we’re looking at people that are at the top of their game in their domains.

“And at this point, it’s no longer just pure artificial intelligence, but people who understand, extremely well, robotics, industrial manufacturing, cybersecurity, and financial services in general, which are all the areas we’re going after.”

Gagné says that Element AI has already delivered 10 projects to clients in those areas, and have many more in development. In one case, Element AI has been helping a Japanese semiconductor company better analyze the data collected by the assembly robots on its factory floor, in a bid to reduce manufacturing errors and improve the quality of the company’s products.

There’s more to investment in Québec’s AI sector than Element AI (from the Braga article; Note: Links have been removed),

Element AI isn’t the only organization in Canada that investors are interested in.

In September, the Canadian government announced $213 million in funding for a handful of Montreal universities, while both Google and Microsoft announced expansions of their Montreal AI research groups in recent months alongside investments in local initiatives. The province of Quebec has pledged $100 million for AI initiatives by 2022.

Braga goes on to note some other initiatives but at that point the article’s focus is exclusively Toronto.

For more insight into the AI situation in Québec, there’s Dan Delmar’s May 23, 2017 article for the Montreal Express (Note: Links have been removed),

Advocating for massive government spending with little restraint admittedly deviates from the tenor of these columns, but the AI business is unlike any other before it. [emphasis misn] Having leaders acting as fervent advocates for the industry is crucial; resisting the coming technological tide is, as the Borg would say, futile.

The roughly 250 AI researchers who call Montreal home are not simply part of a niche industry. Quebec’s francophone character and Montreal’s multilingual citizenry are certainly factors favouring the development of language technology, but there’s ample opportunity for more ambitious endeavours with broader applications.

AI isn’t simply a technological breakthrough; it is the technological revolution. [emphasis mine] In the coming decades, modern computing will transform all industries, eliminating human inefficiencies and maximizing opportunities for innovation and growth — regardless of the ethical dilemmas that will inevitably arise.

“By 2020, we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain,” said (in 2009) futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, a seminal 2006 book that has inspired a generation of AI technologists. Kurzweil’s projections are not science fiction but perhaps conservative, as some forms of AI already effectively replace many human cognitive functions. “By 2045, we’ll have expanded the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion-fold. That will be the singularity.”

The singularity concept, borrowed from physicists describing event horizons bordering matter-swallowing black holes in the cosmos, is the point of no return where human and machine intelligence will have completed their convergence. That’s when the machines “take over,” so to speak, and accelerate the development of civilization beyond traditional human understanding and capability.

The claims I’ve highlighted in Delmar’s article have been made before for other technologies, “xxx is like no other business before’ and “it is a technological revolution.”  Also if you keep scrolling down to the bottom of the article, you’ll find Delmar is a ‘public relations consultant’ which, if you look at his LinkedIn profile, you’ll find means he’s a managing partner in a PR firm known as Provocateur.

Bertrand Marotte’s May 20, 2017 article for the Montreal Gazette offers less hyperbole along with additional detail about the Montréal scene (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem like an ambitious goal, but key players in Montreal’s rapidly growing artificial-intelligence sector are intent on transforming the city into a Silicon Valley of AI.

Certainly, the flurry of activity these days indicates that AI in the city is on a roll. Impressive amounts of cash have been flowing into academia, public-private partnerships, research labs and startups active in AI in the Montreal area.

…, researchers at Microsoft Corp. have successfully developed a computing system able to decipher conversational speech as accurately as humans do. The technology makes the same, or fewer, errors than professional transcribers and could be a huge boon to major users of transcription services like law firms and the courts.

Setting the goal of attaining the critical mass of a Silicon Valley is “a nice point of reference,” said tech entrepreneur Jean-François Gagné, co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched last year.

The idea is to create a “fluid, dynamic ecosystem” in Montreal where AI research, startup, investment and commercialization activities all mesh productively together, said Gagné, who founded Element with researcher Nicolas Chapados and Université de Montréal deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio.

“Artificial intelligence is seen now as a strategic asset to governments and to corporations. The fight for resources is global,” he said.

The rise of Montreal — and rival Toronto — as AI hubs owes a lot to provincial and federal government funding.

Ottawa promised $213 million last September to fund AI and big data research at four Montreal post-secondary institutions. Quebec has earmarked $100 million over the next five years for the development of an AI “super-cluster” in the Montreal region.

The provincial government also created a 12-member blue-chip committee to develop a strategic plan to make Quebec an AI hub, co-chaired by Claridge Investments Ltd. CEO Pierre Boivin and Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton.

But private-sector money has also been flowing in, particularly from some of the established tech giants competing in an intense AI race for innovative breakthroughs and the best brains in the business.

Montreal’s rich talent pool is a major reason Waterloo, Ont.-based language-recognition startup Maluuba decided to open a research lab in the city, said the company’s vice-president of product development, Mohamed Musbah.

“It’s been incredible so far. The work being done in this space is putting Montreal on a pedestal around the world,” he said.

Microsoft struck a deal this year to acquire Maluuba, which is working to crack one of the holy grails of deep learning: teaching machines to read like the human brain does. Among the company’s software developments are voice assistants for smartphones.

Maluuba has also partnered with an undisclosed auto manufacturer to develop speech recognition applications for vehicles. Voice recognition applied to cars can include such things as asking for a weather report or making remote requests for the vehicle to unlock itself.

Marotte’s Twitter profile describes him as a freelance writer, editor, and translator.

Part-time job at the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST)

The Vancouver-based Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) has a part-time, contract position available. From the SCWIST Coordinator – MS Infinity Program job page,

The Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) is a non-profit association that promotes, encourages and empowers women and girls in science, engineering and technology. Ms Infinity programs introduce girls to exciting career options and female role models in science and technology. Conferences and workshops with fun filled activities bring science alive. Girls are introduced to jobs from all areas of science and get the support they need when deciding how to take their interest in science further with e-mentor and role model programs.

POSITION OVERVIEW & KEY RESPONSIBILITIES

Title: Coordinator – MS Infinity Program
Type: Part-time contract (12 – 18 hours per week)
Start: ASAP
Application deadline: January 20, 2015
Reports to: Director of Outreach
Time Commitment:  This is a 6-month contract, to be renewed based on grant funding

Coordination and promotion of ms infinity programming:

  • Volunteer recruitment and management
  • Volunteer training, development and communication (quarterly e-newsletter)
  • Preparation of promotional material and marketing of the program
  • Organization of and communication with the ms infinity committee
  • Communication with workshop/ event/ conference organizers
  • Promotion of ms infinity offerings to SCWIST members
  • Assistance in workshop, event and conference organization
  • Research of new workshop and event possibilities to extend the reach of ms infinity
  • Development of new educational workshops
  • Grant application, reporting and budget management

Coordination of the e-mentoring program:

  • Program administration
  • Recruitment of mentors and mentees
  • Organization of discussion topics

Qualifications:

  • A degree in science or education
  • Experience in informal science education and program coordination
  • Positive, enthusiastic attitude
  • Ability to present the Society well in the science learning and promotion community
  • Strong organizational and communication skills
  • Self-motivated with attention to detail
  • Experience in event organization and management, as well as experience managing budgets
  • Excellent knowledge in MS Office and social media tools

Additional application information is on the job page.

Become a press and communications officer for the UK’s Society of Biology

The application deadline for the job is Monday, June 23, 2014 5 pm (London, UK time). Should you be living on the West Coast of Canada or the US (not sure about Mexico as that country curves east the further south you travel) move the time back 8 hours for a 9 am deadline.

Here’s more about the job (h/t Rebecca N) from the Press & Communications Officer posting on the Society of Biology’s Job Board,

Job title: Press & Communications Officer

Reports to: Director of Membership, Marketing & Communications

Overall purpose: To ensure, through proactive media & PR activity, that the Society has the profile and level of publicity to support the organisation’s vision and brand. To co-ordinate Biology Week and use it as a way to raise the profile of the Society of Biology and of the biosciences.

Contract: Permanent

Hours: Full-time

Salary: £25,000 to £29,000 (depending on experience)

Key responsibilities:

1.    Develop and lead a proactive and effective media strategy; build relationships with journalists, and act as the main point of contact for journalist enquiries; write press releases and news articles for the website; produce background briefings and prepare spokespeople for interviews, co-ordinating media interviews and requests; arrange media interviews and develop a public profile for key staff; monitor current issues and public opinion to inform the media strategy; work with Member Organisations and the Science Media Centre; ensure that all media communications comply with the Society’s brand identity and guidelines

2.    Develop a PR strategy; identify and exploit PR opportunities to maximise the Society’s policy work, to promote the Society as the unifying voice of biology, to promote the benefits of membership, and to promote key events; evaluate all PR activity

3.    Work with the Society’s branches and special interest groups to support and/or deliver regional/specialist press work

4.    Monitor the Society’s press and broadcast coverage, feeding this information back to staff and volunteers

5.    Assist in managing the media in a potential crisis situation, including availability outside normal office hours: ensure any negative coverage is swiftly and effectively responded to, including production of position statements prior to any media interest

6.    Maintain the media database with key contacts

7.    Co-ordinate Biology Week, including liaising with teachers and increasing the number of external events, and managing an intern

8.    Organise Biology Week events, including a reception in the House of Commons, and use the events to raise the Society’s profile

9.    Manage the Society’s social media outlets, including a blog, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and increase its online following

10.    Work with team to produce photographs, videos and podcasts

11.    Co-ordinate citizen science projects, including the flying ant survey

12.    Carrying out such other duties as may be required, including occasional UK travel and stays overnight

This looks like it could be fun, ‘co-ordinate a citizen science flying ant survey’. And, seeing one of the other duties involves organizing a reception at the House of Commons, the requirement “Able to get on with people at all levels” seems more important than it might ordinarily. Although how one would evaluate the quality mystifies me. The rest of the requirements and more application details are available here.

Here’s more about the Society of Biology from its About us page (Note: Links have been removed),

The Society of Biology is a single unified voice for biology: advising Government and influencing policy; advancing education and professional development; supporting our members, and engaging and encouraging public interest in the life sciences. The Society represents a diverse membership of individuals, learned societies and other organisations.

Individual members include practising scientists, students at all levels, professionals in academia, industry and education, and non-professionals with an interest in biology.
Our vision is of a world that understands the true value of biology and how it can contribute to improving life for all.

Our mission is to be the unifying voice for biology, to facilitate the promotion of new discoveries in biological science for national and international benefit, and to engage the wider public with our work.

Good luck!