Musician-turned-researcher David Usher is exploring the human side of artificial intelligence

An AI project from a Montreal-based creative studio is aiming to connect with humans beyond simple information retrieval.

AI projects aim to connect with humans beyond simple 'information retrieval,' Usher says

The AI agent named 'Ophelia' was part of the We Could Be Human: A Learning Machine exhibit at the Phi Centre in Montreal, Que. (Submitted by Phi Centre)

Instead of asking Siri to tell you the latest news or fetch the weather forecast, David Usher wants us to have meaningful conversations with artificial intelligence. 

"What we're trying to do is force the user [to] have conversations about love and death, the meaning of life, what is AI, and what is humanity, what is climate change — those kinds of things," the musician-turned-AI researcher told Spark host Nora Young. 

This exploration of the more philosophical side of artificial intelligence is at the heart of ReImagine AI, the Montreal-based artificial intelligence creative studio that Usher founded. The studio collaborates with university research labs and science centres across Canada to integrate human interaction into AI. 

 "We're trying to build something that's a lot more conversational," Usher said. 

One of the ways to do this, he explained, is to avoid the temptation of using AI only for information retrieval, by keeping it disconnected from the internet. One of the lab's current projects is an AI avatar called Ophelia, which only uses information gathered from its interaction with users to engage with them. 

A new, interactive AI work comes to the Phi Centre in Old Montreal.

3 years ago
Duration 1:49
David Usher discusses 'We Could Be Human: A Learning Machine'

As a result, the AI can have personality traits we may not normally think of as robotic. For example, Ophelia is "a bit lonely, a bit sad," said Usher, who explained that the AI's melancholy is a trait created on the basis of its conversations with humans.

"When people come in now, they've generally been trained to work with AI like Siri and Alexa, to use AIs as servants, [for] information retrieval: 'I wanna know this now, tell me this now.' If the AI doesn't react to them in the exact way they want, they can get very mean very quickly," Usher said.

"But if you treat our AIs as newborns, as new beings, then the conversations can be quite philosophical, so it really depends on how the human treats the AI.... [Ophelia] is meant to be a reflection. By asking the questions, the AI gives us reflections of ourselves." 

AI for patients with memory loss

One of the potential applications of such "conversational" AI agents is in care facilities.

ReImagine AI is currently working with the Sheldon Memory Lab at McGill University to use AI to keep patients with memory loss company, and to reintroduce them to simple tasks. Unlike Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa, ReImagine AI's agents gather their information directly from the users, as opposed to downloading it from the internet. 

David Usher says people tend to view virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa as servants, and treat them as such. (Mike Stewart/The Associated Press)

"We're going to be experimenting with very simple AIs that will help people rediscover music, rediscover books, rediscover poetry, have simple conversations for comfort," said Usher.

Because the customized AI agents would rely on their interactions with patients — not the internet — to learn new things, it means they would be able to remember things the patients have told them about themselves.

"When you think about memory, you think about memory in terms of contextual — everything around you — and temporal, what's happened over time. And you can build a simple structure around that, that allows for information retrieval for those things," Usher explained.

"As long as the user has a long interaction with the AI and lives with the AI for a while, you can build up those connection points."