Article: Professor Edward (Ted) Sargent on fostering innovation through research

#FutureOfWork

Professor Edward (Ted) Sargent on fostering innovation through research

In an interaction with People Matters, Professor Edward (Ted) Sargent, the Vice-President at the University of Toronto, talks about the tech innovations and the future of work, and how the university is preparing the next generation of leaders.
Professor Edward (Ted) Sargent on fostering innovation through research

Professor Edward (Ted) Sargent is the Vice-President and a Professor in the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto (U of T). Through his work both as a scholar and vice-dean, research in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, Professor Sargent has accumulated extensive experience in developing and enhancing global research networks involving both academic and industrial partners. The University of Toronto is a global institution with one-quarter of its student body international, coming from more than 168 countries including India. 

You are an academic, entrepreneur, author and a fellow at many institutes. Tell us how you ventured into this area of nanotechnology that led to your book, The Dance of the Molecules?

I began my academic career working with semiconductor lasers for optical fiber communications -- the long-distance backbone of the Internet. I was fascinated by how quantum mechanical effects could be used to make bright, spectrally-pure sources of light for communications. Later I became fascinated with what chemists had started doing in the early 2000s –making semiconductors as bright and as promising as traditional laser materials, but doing so near room temperature in the liquid phase. I translated my research over to working with these new nanomaterials that could be produced, at low cost, in vast quantities.

What is the focus of your research at the moment? 

I work with liquid-processed semiconductors to make better and more cost-effective devices for renewable energy. This includes making solar cells that better capture the full spectrum of light from the sun. 

It also involves making more energy-efficient light sources for displays and lighting. Finally, we have a new project in which we combine renewable electricity (such as from wind and solar) with CO2 and upgrade the waste CO2 into fuels and chemical feedstocks.

The framework of conventional academia is challenged by the pace of change we see today. This is basically a dilemma for the education system and the industry. What's your opinion on this?

The University of Toronto is a global institution dedicated to training the next generation of leaders. We have deepened our engagement globally and locally; this helps to foster research and collaboration; tackle grand challenges; ensure access for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.  

We help entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life by supporting start-ups in research and innovation. We have nine accelerators that help early-stage companies get off the ground and provide them with mentorship, training, workspace, and connections with potential investors.

We recently established a School of Cities to provide a platform for interdisciplinary research addressing the most pressing challenges facing our cities today, including income polarization, infrastructure investment, and affordable housing. We focus on giving students experience-based, work-integrated learning opportunities to undertake research and exchanges with partner institutions. This helps keep up with the pace of change and helps link research to application.

The Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering and Commerce and Computer Science allows students to spend 12-16 months in a paid internship in the largest paid professional internship of its kind in Canada. At U of T’s Scarborough campus, students have access to 50 Co-op programs in the arts, science and management disciplines to learn directly from industry professionals.

Summer work opportunities include the chance to assist in labs at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children; collaborate with astronomers; work in immunology labs.

Returning to the world of tech, we are still figuring out a lot about it - AI, VR, etc. We are trying for technological agility into real applications that transform people's lives and society. But in an age when science often evokes more fear than faith, what are technology's positive possibilities?

We cannot predict the future but we do know that mobile computing, social media, and artificial intelligence are having a dramatic impact on the workforce; universities are adapting to these changes. We provide a foundation for life-long learning, which is key as the world of work changes rapidly. 

Students need not just technical knowledge but also analytical, creative and problem-solving skills. U of T excels in inter-disciplinary learning and is very strong in computer science, engineering, life sciences, regenerative medicine, and many other fields. Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hinton helped pioneer the technology behind deep learning, which allows computers to mimic the way the human brain learns. This is having a transformative impact on everything from how we drive cars – or, more accurately, the way they drive us – to the way doctors diagnose disease. U of T was recently ranked first in Canada and 12th in the world for graduate employability by Times Higher Education.  

Online learning and other tools can help democratize learning. University of Toronto just launched a self-driving car course with Coursera. The two countries that have shown the most interest in it are the US and India

Online learning and other tools can help democratize learning. For example, U of T just launched a self-driving car course with Coursera. The two countries that have shown the most interest in it are the US and India. The professors are reaching thousands of students they would otherwise never reach and giving them a chance to gain a comprehensive understanding of state-of-the-art engineering practices in the self-driving car industry.

The autonomous driving industry is predicted to be a $42-billion market with more than 20 million self-driving cars on the road by 2025.

Don't forget that for every new automation challenge, we need a human who understands the technical aspects and how to program and manipulate robotsDon't forget that for every new automation challenge, we need a human who understands the technical aspects and how to program and manipulate robots

Today machine-learning algorithms and software enable us to organize the information about the physical world gathered by billions of devices within the range of our understanding. What are the practical implications of using nanotech that will revolutionize the way we live and work?

There is a remarkable degree of intersection of the nanotech and machine-learning revolutions. The ever-increased computing capacity that powers the AI revolution owes its advent to nano-transistors. The internet that enables the cloud relies on quantum well lasers to power optical fiber communications. And now AI is transforming nanotechnology and materials science more generally. Researchers are striving to accelerate their discoveries using both computations and experiments powered by AI.

Exponential technologies have profound effects on how economies function. How do you think the world will look like in the future, and what would be the role of humans?

Machines won’t take over humans. Some people in the labor market will be displaced. Repetitive jobs such as assembling products, data entry or processing transactions in banks will be replaced by robotics.

But don’t forget that for every new automation challenge, we need a human who understands the technical aspects and how to program and manipulate robots. So many new fields of jobs will be created and that is great for young students in engineering, computer science, and many other fields.

How can we balance innovation with mindful execution? How can we ensure emerging technologies are actually solving more problems than theyÕre creating? And are we making lives better for others, or just better for ourselves?

For many, the idea of AI-enabled robots taking over human roles is problematic. But there is a lot of research going on to develop socially assistive robots who can improve the lives of others, for example of seniors. 

Under the supervision of Associate Professor Goldie Nejat, the Canada Research Chair in Robots for Society, researchers have been developing socially assistive robots to cognitively stimulate seniors and encourage them to exercise and take their medication and encourage them to live healthier and better lives.

Another wave of start-up firms, including Toronto-based Blue J, are using AI to help lawyers do a better job and save money for their clients by managing growing piles of documents, transcripts and case law. With machines able to sift quickly through reams of data, lawyers can spend more time with clients crafting strategies.

Why are Indian students interested in Canada and U of Toronto?

Canada is an increasingly attractive country for international students, with anti-immigrant policies south of the border and the uncertainty created by Brexit. U of T is a global institution with one-quarter of its student body international, coming from more than 168 countries. Our campuses and the surrounding Toronto area are safe and welcoming places and we are a diverse and multicultural population.

U of T values Indian students for their academic strength and their rich contributions to student life on its campuses. U of T ranks 12th in the world for global employability and offers paid professional co-ops and internships in some programs so students can gain valuable work experience. International graduates can apply for three-year work permits -- an opportunity not available in the U.S. or the U.K. We have seen enrolment from India increased by 280 percent from 2014 to 2018. 

 

Topics: #FutureOfWork, Leadership

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