‘Adaptable Minds’ Key to Improve Life

In the film The Martian, Matt Damon’s astronaut character improvises to survive, including adapting his botany smarts to grow food on the red planet while awaiting rescue.

The movie is about the adaptability of the human spirit – a favourite theme of mine. We often fear the unknown, and still we are driven to explore, whether the journey takes us outward to Earth’s limits and beyond, or inward to the mind.

This issue of the Portico takes us outward and inward.

For many Canadians, the North helps define us as a country. “We the North,” say the Toronto Raptors – or, since a recent marketing shift, “North Over Everything.”

Viewed from Yellowknife, Iqaluit or northern Labrador, the GTA is hardly the North. Only a small percentage of Canadians can claim any real acquaintance with northern Canada.

But as a country, we claim Northern-ness as a vital part of who we are. That means that we also bear responsibility for the Canadian North.
From its environment to the heritage and well-being of its inhabitants, that part of our country is undergoing rapid change. How to protect and preserve the North? By understanding the causes and effects of those changes, and by finding ways to continue adapting to them.

That’s the goal of researchers and scholars whose varied projects are discussed in this Portico issue.

At the same time, our researchers are also exploring another kind of frontier: artificial intelligence.

Through machine learning, we aim to enable computers to learn in ways that mimic what humans do from birth.

Smarter machines are intended to improve life for humans and to help improve prospects for our growing planet – for instance, by enabling the kind of precision agriculture envisioned under U of G’s Food From Thought project and Arrell Food Institute.

Learning about machine brains also promises to tell us something about the nuances of our own complex, unpredictable and adaptable brains.

By understanding how machines think, we stand to learn more about the workings of the human mind – arguably the most important tool we have for meeting tomorrow’s challenges on this planet, or on any other.