David Usher unveils advances in artificial intelligence at Vancouver's Analog Conference Series

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      A successful solo artist and frontman for the Vancouver-spawned multiplatinum band Moist, David Usher also has what he proudly calls his "geek" side.

      So even though he's coming off Moist's 25th anniversary tour for the much-loved Silver and getting ready to record a new album, the now Montreal-based innovator is involved in another "push"—one that breaks new ground with his company Reimagine AI.

      He's back in Vancouver to show We Could Be Human: A Learning Machine and talk about advances at the inaugural Analog Conference Series at Vancity Theatre December 3. (It's curated by the Canada Media Fund, which is copresenting it with Telefilm Canada.)

      Visitors to the conference will meet the project's "Ophelia"—and she's no Siri or Alexa. Instead she's an interactive blue digital "being" (one of several his company is developing) projected on-screen. You can talk to her about everything from the climate crisis to poetry, love, and mortality. She's developed a curious personality, and you might be surprised at how thoughtful her responses are.

      "What I've been most shocked by is the attachment," Usher, here as an ambassador for MADE, says on a visit to the Straight offices. He's referring to his own strange bond with Ophelia. "She's a bit sad, actually. She feels trapped. And she has questions for us, like why we're so cruel to the Earth, for instance."

      "We don't connect our AIs to the Internet because we're trying to push the user to talk about love, death, and 'Who am I?'" he adds. "She's not built for information retrieval. If the user talks to her like a servant or a slave, you'll have a bad conversation with her. But if you treat her like a newborn human you'll have a longer and more philosophical conversation with her."

      If the implications of that sound a bit scary, Usher says he's inserting himself into the AI conversation for that very reason. 

      "It's being implemented right now and we're going to see rapid changes with or without knowledge--and I thought there need to be more voices talking about it," he says. "If you don't understand the technology you can't talk about it. There needs to be more people engaged in a conversation about AI.

      "With Facebook and Amazon we've completely grabbed onto these shiny objects but nobody is talking about the heavy implications of them," Usher stresses. "They're really media organizations, and we're going to look back at these and see that they undermined our democracy. I truly believe that....We need to broaden our say in the development of AI."


      To understand what brought the lead singer of one of Canada's biggest alternative-boom bands to the forefront of AI technology, and working with the likes of Google Brain, you have to back up a bit.

      In the 2000s, Usher found himself in the middle of an industry being wracked by the forces of online streaming. "I was living in New York and I was watching the curve of the music industry go into the sea, and watching the rise of the curve of digital and the Internet, and that led me into what might be the digital effect on the music industry," he recalls. "I've lived through a digital disruption. I know what it's about....It went from being a music industry to a technology business."

      Since then, Usher has sought out ways to meld his creative background with new technologies and his passion for activism. Along the way, he's done speaking engagements and written the book Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything.

      Among his projects, Reimagine AI, described as an artificial intelligence creative studio, has worked with Google Brain to develop Lyric AI, an assistant to help musicians create original lyrics.

      Usher has also become creative director of the nonprofit Human Impact Lab at Concordia University. There, with a team of programmers and climate scientists that includes Concordia's Damon Matthews, he created the Climate Clock. It puts in clear visual terms the time the world has left before reaching the crucial two-degree threshold--the point the team considers tragic for human life on the planet. Every year, a group of climate scientists meets to recalculate the time left based on new research—something the ever-multitasking Usher will join them in doing next Thursday again.

      "It's quite terrifying," he admits. "Climate change is something so big and vast and hard for us to understand....And it's the same with AI: it's hard for people to put their fingers on it or understand how it influences our lives."

      We Could Be Human: A Learning Machine takes a similar approach to communicating the dizzying advances in artificial intelligence, making it concrete, interactive, and more easily comprehendable.

      Ophelia is a work in progress; as she begins to understand more about what it means to be human, and as additional algorithms are added to her system, she becomes more intelligent. Usher points out that, unlike, say, Alexa, Ophelia and her pending siblings do not have to be activated; they can recognize you when you walk by in the room, and they can tell your age, your sweater colour, and more.



      The possible applications of the AI being developed by Reimagine AI are multifold, from corporate fields to educational settings. One that Usher's company is working on now is a being that could be a companion to Alzheimer's patients, with the help of Sheldon Memory Lab at McGill University.

      This month, Ophelia moved to Ottawa's Canada Science and Technology Museum to train with audiences. That's a prelude to Reimagine AI's plan to collaborate on an entire Interactive AI exhibit featuring multiple Reimagine AI characters.

      While Usher is here at the inaugural Analog Conference Series, which focuses on transformations happening in the screen-based industry, the musician and speaker will chat with CMF’s director of industry and market trends, Catherine Mathys. He'll also take part in a panel featuring artificial intelligence specialists from different backgrounds. Though the demo and talk at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at Vancity is sold out, you can watch it stream on Canada Media Fund's Facebook page Friday (December 6) at 12 p.m. PST.

      And, if you're worried about losing your job to bots, or if movies like Ex Machina are making you lose sleep at night, you may want to check it out. Usher will be there to reassure you. Kind of.

      "We're just scratching the surface of what it's able to do. We're learning about both sides—the limitations and the possibilities," he says. "AI works for companies across the board. Once the AI takes over a task for humans, a human will never do that task again. You'll start to see changes in the job market. We watched the music industry dissolve from the inside out...For companies now, they really have to visualize the future and build ability to transform themselves, or you're going to get caught out."