Ethics, Ideals and Integration

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by HORST HERGET

In a bid to spearhead socially conscious artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives, York University has unveiled its latest endeavour: the Centre for AI & Society (CAIS). Co-headed by Professor James Elder, the York Research Chair in Human and Computer Vision, CAIS aims to bridge the gap between technological advancements and societal needs.

The centre combines different areas of research, including behavioural and neuroscience studies, computational modelling, statistical analysis and computer-vision design. Its main goal is to improve our understanding of how humans perceive the world and enhance artificial intelligence. This research also has practical applications in areas such as transportation, robotics and sports analysis.

photo of Professor James Elder crossing an intersection in Toronto
Professor James Elder

“CAIS is one of the founding Organized Research Units (ORU) of Connected Minds, which unites research on neuroscience, AI and technology to foster a healthy and just society,” Elder says. “It is particularly important in generating novel and beneficial technologies that will improve quality of life in Canada and elsewhere, but also in understanding how these disruptive technologies can best be integrated into society in order to minimize risk and maximize benefit for all.”

The establishment of CAIS aligns with York University’s strategic vision outlined in its 2018–2023 Strategic Research Plan, which identified AI integration into society as a crucial area for development. To make it happen, Elder collaborated with Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Pina D’Agostino (BA ’96, LLB ’99) to form and lead a task force to evaluate York’s AI landscape and chart a course for future research development.

It is particularly important in generating novel and beneficial technologies that will improve quality of life

Their findings, published in the influential report “Fostering the Future of Artificial Intelligence,” laid the groundwork for CAIS, which officially launched in July 2022, uniting faculty members from diverse backgrounds and faculties. Guided by Elder and D’Agostino, CAIS’s mission extends beyond academic discourse.  The centre aims to foster a sense of community among researchers engaged in AI and society studies, while promoting dialogue through lectures and conferences. Notable speakers, including Moshe Vardi (from Rice University), Kate Kalcevich (from leading accessibility company Fable) and Ioannis Pitas (from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) have so far appeared at CAIS-sponsored events, lecturing on critical issues such as technology and democracy, and disability considerations in AI.

Looking ahead, CAIS intends to expand its seminar series while hosting additional conferences, and involve more trainees, including graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. 

These efforts align with York University’s broader institutional goals under the interdisciplinary $318.4-million Connected Minds initiative, which is currently investigating how emerging technologies, such as AI, are impacting and transforming society.

As AI continues to evolve at a rapid pace, CAIS remains committed to driving innovation while ensuring responsible AI deployment. “Our systems approach places emphasis on how AI technologies operate when embedded in real-world contexts, interacting with humans and other technologies,” Elder says. “Our research focuses on AI systems that address societal priorities in health care,  smart cities and sustainability, and that are fair,  explainable,  reliable and trusted.” ■

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