Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence, or AI, seems to be the popular topic in media these days, and I have had a number of questions about it from prospective students and families over the past year.  The short answer is yes, we do have AI in our Engineering programs.  In fact, we have an “Option in Artificial Intelligence”  available for students in any engineering program.  This is essentially like a “Minor” in the topic, a package of courses related to the field (at Waterloo our terminology is a bit different, so we don’t call it a “minor”).  If you complete the package of courses, you’ll have the designation on your transcript and diploma when you graduate.

Although AI seems new and exciting, the roots and development are actually fairly old, having a basis in  ancient philosophy and mathematics.  Even the more modern versions and applications of AI go back over 50 years to the initial developments in  computational machines.  One misunderstanding is that AI is all about programming, but it is actually highly mathematical at its core.  Programming is just a tool for implementing the math and various algorithms.

Some people may be surprised to know that the mathematical tools and foundations for AI are not even limited to computer science or computer engineering.  My colleagues in Chemical Engineering have been using them for decades for various purposes, and here are a few quick examples with links for further information.

Optimization methods are often a part of chemical plant design, scheduling, cost minimization, and various other things like this example on planning electricity generation.  The control of complex chemical plant processes has been researched using artificial neural networks, like this simpler example of crude oil desaltingBayesian inference methods are employed for dealing with the significant uncertainties in chemical processes, even by me many years agoKalman filter techniques are used to help us handle the noisy data coming from chemical processes, including this example from biotechnology.  And there are lots of other examples, just in Chemical Engineering alone, not even looking at Civil, Mechanical and others (where I know they also use these advanced mathematical techniques).

Just another example of how broad and diverse the engineering fields are, and how concepts and tools are spread and shared across all these disciplines.

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