Researchers at the Canadian Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Edmonton this week envision a day when robots will be a mainstay in our homes and workplaces — doing daily tasks like cooking, cleaning and even keeping us company. 

​The AI conference, held at the University of Alberta's Lister Centre, is expected to draw hundreds of academics and industry leaders to Edmonton between May 16 and 19.

"We want computers to be able to be smarter and to be able to understand [a] question, that's the first step," explained Greg Kondrak, a computer science professor at the the University of Alberta.

Upon hearing a question, the smart computer would scan the internet for accurate results and "formulate the answer in a way that we kind of expect from other people."

Kondrak's area of expertise is natural language processing. The technology will enable computers to communicate with people in plain speech and be an alternative to texting and writing emails, he said.

Kondrak believes AI and robotics researchers are making progress on programs that can give "acceptable answers to people talking to them." 

Greg Kondrak

University of Alberta computer science professor Greg Kondrak thinks robots could be good companions for people living alone.

"I think people are the most comfortable communicating using the language that they know — the human language," he said.

The future of robotics

Malek Mouhoub, a conference co-chair and head of the computer science department at the University of Regina, said AI is gaining importance in certain industries, such as health care.

"Robots can be very precise when conducting surgery," he said. "Also, robots can conduct many surgeries with the same precision while the human being, after a certain time ...  might lose precision."

New technologies aren't without their critics, however. From job losses to invasion of privacy, the fear that machines will take over the world while Big Brother monitors our every move isn't all that far-fetched.

"This is a very hot topic," Mouhoub said. "Many researchers are currently working on robust techniques in order to ensure that data are safe and not hacked or stolen for other purposes."

He also thinks artificial intelligence will improve society and create different kinds of work. 

Malek Mouhoub

AI conference co-chair Malek Mouhoub says the health-care industry is benefiting from robotic technology.

"The type of job will shift into jobs for skilled workers. I don't really see losing jobs," he said.

"We need people to maintain these robots — if the robot is broken or something — in addition to those people who write programs to control robots."

Kondrak said robots can also help sick people, seniors and anyone just looking for companionship.

"We know that having a pet is a very good thing for a person who lives alone," Kondrak said.

"And I think these kinds of robots, [if] they are able to process general human language, can provide a better experience than a pet," he added.

"You can talk to your cat but the cat does not talk back to you."

Kondrak believes what is considered "intelligent" has changed over the years. There was a time, for example, when a computer beating a master chess player was impressive.

"Nowadays people kind of expect more," he said. "As we keep achieving those goals, people set the bar higher and higher."

He said people now see creating something unique, like a poem, as a sign of intelligence.