The Government is investing millions of dollars in the University of Auckland to help understand and unlock the power of artificial intelligence (AI).

Professor Michael Witbrock, a leading expert and researcher in the field of AI, has joined the University under the Tertiary Education Commission’s Entrepreneurial Universities programme.

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

“We are investing approximately $4 million to fund research in this area. It’s one of the ways we are helping New Zealanders prepare and explore the exciting possibilities new technology will bring.

“AI has many applications, from driverless cars to improving healthcare for hospital patients. We want New Zealanders studying, benefiting, and working with AI.”

University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon says the appointment of a leading and talented researcher in a field with the potential to influence so many aspects of human life is an exciting development.

“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.”

Professor Witbrock, a New Zealander born in Christchurch who has spent much of his career overseas, has returned to New Zealand to take up the role of Professor in Computer Science and will run a new Strong AI lab.

He wants to ensure this country is in a position to reap the benefits of AI, a technology that could significantly influence our future work and leisure time.

“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.

Many people, including scientists, are fearful of the power of AI, and in particular its potential use in new robotic weaponry technology, but Professor Witbrock feels strongly that AI must and will be a force for good. To that end, he helped start a foundation called ‘AI 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.”

Before returning to New Zealand this year, Professor 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 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.

He 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.

An inventor on seven United States patents, Professor Witbrock has published on a range of research topics, including the development of computer systems modelled on the human brain, computational linguistics and speech recognition.