Auckland Uni scores Government AI funding

Professor Michael Witbrock to run new lab

The University of Auckland says it has scored millions of dollars of Government funding to help understand and unlock the power of artificial intelligence (AI).

As a result of the funding it has appointed professor Michael Witbrock, described as “a leading expert and researcher in the field of AI” and “a New Zealander born in Christchurch who has spent much of his career overseas,” to run a new Broad AI lab as professor in computer science under the Entrepreneurial Universities program.

Education minister Chris Hipkins said the Government was committed to ensuring New Zealand is at the forefront of AI technology that is “not only changing the workforce, but the way we live.”

He said the Government was investing approximately $4 million to fund research into AI, but did not say how much of this was going to the University of Auckland.

Witbrock said he wanted to ensure New Zealand is in a position to reap the benefits of AI. “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 said.

Before returning to New Zealand earlier this year, Witbrock was a distinguished research staff member at IBM Research AI where he led work in machine learning and knowledge representation, and the intersection of learning and reasoning.

Prior to that he founded a company that built AI assistants 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 knowledge-based AI including systems that could perform automated reasoning to solve problems, and explain their solutions in English.

He has also done work in integrating statistical and knowledge-based approaches to understand web user behaviour, and has been an expert consultant to the European Commission in reasoning and human-computer collaboration.

He also helped start the AI for Good foundation in 2015. It claims to play a leading role in tackling issues at the intersection of scientific research, social impact, and sustainable development.

Witbrock said one of his motivations in taking up this role at the university was to help ensure that, if machines become as smart, or smarter, than humans, they must be for the good of humankind.

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