Toronto Metropolitan University Professor Dr. Hossein Rahnama on the power of creative AI

Toronto Metropolitan University Professor Dr. Hossein Rahnama on the power of creative AI

Plus, some of the unique AI research emerging from the newly launched Creative AI Hub by The Creative School, Flybits and the AI Supercluster.

Before Dr. Hossein Rahnama was a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), he was a student. He joined the RTA School of Media at The Creative School as an associate professor in 2012, shortly after completing his Ph.D. studies in computer science and getting recognized alongside the founders of Spotify and Dropbox as one of the Top Global Innovators under the age of 35, TR35. “I’ve always been very proud of my alma mater,” he says. Having also completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at the university, he credits TMU for providing an environment where he could explore his interests in emerging technologies. In addition to his role as associate professor, Rahnama is a visiting professor at MIT Media Lab. He was one of the three co-founders of TMU’s Digital Media Zone and its founding research director—recognized today as one of the largest startup incubators in the country. 

Though his background has always been in computer science and artificial intelligence, what Rahnama enjoys most about The Creative School are the bridges and synergies between various disciplines, encompassing design, storytelling, and the algorithmic excellence of new artificial intelligence systems. This interdisciplinary research approach has materialized in the launch of The Creative School’s new Creative AI Hub in partnership with Flybits Inc.—a leading customer experience platform for the financial services sector founded by Rahnama in 2013. Rahnama has been appointed the inaugural Director of the Hub.

The Creative School at TMU houses 27 media, communication, and design-related programs including journalism, performance, interior design, and film, among others. Renowned for its distinctive and vibrant culture of scholarly research and creative activities, its innovation hubs make up a dynamic ecosystem where faculty and students collaborate with community and industry partners to initiate meaningful change. In conversation with Toronto Life, Dr. Rahnama speaks to the power of interdisciplinary thinking, the acclaim of launching Canada’s first lab focused on creative AI, plus why governments and institutions should be embracing (not banning) new technologies.

Dr. Hossein Rahnama instructs students in the Creative AI course. Photo by Qais Pasha.

How long have you been interested in data science and artificial intelligence, and in what ways have you seen the field evolve?

One of the most profound ways I’ve seen this field evolve has been in the ways artificial intelligence and machine learning have aided general practitioners and family doctors to make accurate diagnoses and reduce the risk of misdiagnosis. Back in 2006, when I was completing my master’s thesis in this area of research, AI was very much confined to a laboratory setting. Today, the benefits of AI are becoming known publicly and are accessible in many forms. AI without data is meaningless, so given the computing power and larger data storage capabilities we now have, we’re able to demonstrate the power of AI in the market more vividly. This has played a big role in the fast and mass commercialization of the technology.

How did your research and work contribute to the evolution of this field?

There are two distinct ways that AI can operate: as a decision-maker or as a decision supporter. The type of technology that I am very passionate about is centred around trustworthy, human-centred artificial intelligence, which acts in a supportive role and is sometimes referred to as extended intelligence. This type of machine learning extends our understanding of a subject to help humans reach conclusions we may not have otherwise. Human-centred AI is what drove my founding of Flybits Inc., a now global company with a large number of international investors in it including Citibank, Mastercard, Vodafone and TD Bank. Additionally, much of my work at MIT has been using AI to replicate knowledge as part of a project called Augmented Eternity. Its ability is to encapsulate someone’s knowledge and expertise into a digital agent such as an avatar and pass it on to their loved ones or colleagues so that knowledge can be used for their benefit. I can activate the avatar to help process information and I can look at the world through their perspective. That project is essentially perhaps one of the most advanced projects that we are working on. It allows one person to use the knowledge and lived experience of another to have a better understanding of any given subject—whether that’s exploring a new city or building empathy within a technology. The Augmented Eternity Project was recently aired on German National Television, ZDF and was part of a documentary film called Artificial Immortality.

What is the vision for The Creative AI Hub and what advancements do you hope to see come out of the lab?

If you think about how we have been teaching AI to students, most of this work is focused on engineering and computer science schools. The curriculum tends to place AI at the end of a long road of math, science and statistics. One thing we want to do at The Creative AI Hub is to look at AI from a top-down point of view, beginning with the philosophy of AI so that students can understand in which context you need a certain type of AI. This will be followed by the manual components of AI, including tools and algorithmic complexities. Ultimately, we want to empower our students and researchers to benefit from AI and apply it to their unique areas of interest. This way, there will be highly-trained individuals in AI working across different fields and within very different disciplines. Instead of expecting everyone to be a coder, statistician or engineer, we are investing in building tools that are no-code and easy to use so that the economic growth possible with AI can span from sector to sector.

What makes Flybits Inc. the right partner for this research and training lab?

Flybits Inc. was born out of my Ph.D. research. With the help of TMU, it was turned into a company, with the university as a key shareholder. A lot of students and alumni have joined our team and have helped grow it into a global enterprise. I thought it would be the perfect partner for an initiative like this because it is a solid case study of how successful research commercialization is possible. Not to mention, at its core, Flybits has built tools that enable companies and entrepreneurs to build AI applications at scale. By providing preferred access to those tools for members of The Creative AI Hub, we will accelerate their success and allow them to build a competitive advantage in the marketplace. By being integrated into the heart of The Creative School, the Hub has access to a breadth of resources and talent from some of the world’s leading programs in the creative sector. We are also pleased that we have included The Creative School as part of an AI consortium funded by the federal government of Canada AI supercluster program, Scale AI. The active program will enable us to accelerate training AI talent in a short period of time. 

Dr. Hossein Rahnama and The Creative School Dean Charles Falzon with students from the Creative AI course. Photo by Qais Pasha.

Why is it important that today’s students receive Creative AI training?

First and foremost, the speed at which AI is evolving, and shaping our economy, is truly revolutionary. Its impact on the economy will be more profound than the advent of the iPhone in 2007. I think we’ve seen first-hand, from the internet to mobile devices, how technology can change rather quickly, and how important it is to understand new technologies in future-proofing students for long-term success. I really believe that we need much faster literacy and understanding of these types of technology. Even as systems like ChatGPT are introduced, it’s important that people, especially young people, understand how to use them effectively and creatively as opposed to just dismissing it as a threat to the ways we have been doing this in the past. Large Language Models such as GPT are amazing for many things but they lack many fundamentals. Our students should learn that. In the same way, teachers learned not to fear the use of calculators in classrooms, AI should not be feared but embraced.

What are some of the prospective ways that Creative AI can enable sectors such as education, healthcare and infrastructure?

I have a group of students that are using generative AI in the metaverse to enable patients to simulate what may happen to them in advance of a medical procedure. The research in this area has been especially useful in measuring the stress levels of patients and managing care. We are, of course, applying AI within the banking sector. For example, instead of downloading a mobile app and going through your savings trying to figure out how to manage your retirement plan, you can simply go to a Metaverse interface called the Flybits OpenDome and ask, “Hey, how can I retire faster?” It all comes down to simplifying the process of tasks we’re already managing in our day-to-day lives. In any sector you can think of, AI support in cybersecurity or border security is game-changing. Even in agriculture, AI is used to measure soil fertility and aggregation. These are just a few examples of the significant value AI will continue to bring industries across the country. I am confident our students, researchers, and partners will come up with such amazing, game-changing ideas at the Hub that we cannot even envision at the moment.

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