Commentary – Let’s make robots by the lake!

Pearl Lorentzen

“Showcasing Alberta’s AI advantage” was the headline of an Alberta government news release in September.

It made me think about options for rural economic development. Artificial Intelligence sounds like science fiction: “An evil robot overlord dominates mankind. The illustrious hero [in an urban post-apocalyptic environment] battles for the future of humankind.”

What they don’t often talk about is the backstory: “Families sitting around a bountiful dinner table because dad or mom got a job in the robotics factory or design lab.”

At the moment, most development is done in cities, but it could be done in rural areas. Why not attract some to the Lesser Slave Lake area or Peace regions? Lots of people are interested in computers. Likely, some would enjoy living in a rural area with a large lake. Some may already be here.

A while ago, someone moving to Smith posted on the community forum asking what Internet companies people were using, because her husband was a professional gamer. Someone recommended a company saying they had a family of gamers.

High Prairie School Division had robotics clubs the last two years. This might look different this year with COVID, but the foundation. In the club, kids make a robot from a kit and code it.

The AI mentioned in the news release was machine learning through Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute [AMII]. This term is so new that a Google search doesn’t include a dictionary definition. says, “machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence [AI] focused on building applications that learn from data and improve their accuracy over time without being programmed to do so.”

My introduction to machine learning was through linguistics. I worked in a phonetics lab during my undergraduate degree. There was a sleek black computer with red lights and exposed fan doing machine learning. I couldn’t quite remember the experiment so I contacted the researcher. He says, “I was training the neural network to distinguish phonemes from each other. So, for a small chunk of audio, what is the probability of it being each different phoneme.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a phoneme as “any of the abstract units of the phonetic [sounds of speech] system of a language that correspond to a set of similar sounds which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language.”

Cat, bat, pat, fat, sat, mat, gnat and rat all differ by only one phoneme – the first sound. When talking, people make a range of sounds for one phoneme.

However, human listeners can differentiate these in context quickly and sometimes out of context.

People can speculate that training computers to learn will cause the downfall of humanity, but so far it has produced voice recognition and other useful tools.

At various economic development talks, one of the keys to economic development is keeping young people from moving away. Maybe AI development could be part of that. We can worry about how to defeat the robot overlords when we get to that part of the story.

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