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Auckland Uni invests in AI

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 18 June 2019, 6:32 pm

The University of Auckland has established a new Artificial Intelligence lab, with $4 million in Government funding, and has recruited a former member of IBM Research AI to run it.

Professor Michael Witbrock will take up the role of Professor in Computer Science and will run the newly established Broad AI lab. He has joined under the Tertiary Education Commission's Entrepreneurial Universities programme, the university announced today.


Witbrock is a New Zealander who has spent many years working overseas and is an inventor on seven US patents. Before returning to New Zealand this year he led work in machine learning and knowledge representation, and the intersection of learning and reasoning, at IBM Research AI.

He previously founded a company that built AI assistants that were able to converse with people and learn from them by asking questions as they went about their daily lives. At another company, Cycorp, he led research in key aspects of knowledge-based AI including systems that could perform automated reasoning to solve problems, and explain their solutions in English.

Witbrock has also done work in the use of integration of statistical and knowledge-based approaches in understanding web user behaviour, and has been an expert consultant to the European Commission in the areas of reasoning and human-computer collaboration.

"We don't yet know when AI will come even close to reaching its potential but when that happens, I would really like to see New Zealand at the forefront, so this country can take full advantage of the developments we expect to see in coming decades," he says, noting that AI can be a force for good.

"If we do get to the stage where we have machines that are as smart, or smarter, than we are, then they must be for the good of humankind. I really believe that, and it's one of my motivations in taking up this role."

Witbrock's appointment is welcomed by University of Auckland Vice Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon who describes AI as a "field with the potential to influence so many aspects of human life."

"I warmly welcome Professor Witbrock to the University and look forward to the contribution he will make across a broad range of our research, teaching and learning activities in one of the fastest-moving fields in science and technology," he says.

Minister of Education Chris Hipkins says the Government has committed $4 million to funding AI research because of the technology's impact on daily life. "AI has many applications, from driverless cars to improving healthcare for hospital patients. We want New Zealanders studying, benefiting, and working with AI," he says.                                                                                                    


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