The University of Ottawa Launches New Research Project on AI for Healthy Humans and Environments

Posted on Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Thanks to a generous gift from Alex Trebek, the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue at the University of Ottawa is supporting the creation of a new research project on Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Healthy Humans and Environments to shape the future of health, food and environmental policy making at the AI + Society Initiative.


The “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” powered by advanced computing and large datasets and characterized by a fusion of the physical, digital, and biological spheres promises to radically and rapidly transform many sectors and impact the lives of Canadians. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the digitalization of our lives. From farmers using digital tools to source inputs and bring us food to contact-tracing apps for healthcare, the pandemic has quickly revealed the utility of digital tools and artificial intelligence (AI). However, this quick shift now raises many ethical and regulatory issues.

The health and environmental applications of AI and big data have yet to receive adequate scholarly attention, and policy makers need research support to build evidence-based public policy in this area. AI will impact the health of humans through radical changes to how we deliver and manage health care across the continuum of care, from surgical settings to long-term care homes. Much will change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Building upon this disrupter of change, there is the potential for AI to be infused into health care systems at a far faster rate than first thought possible. As well, AI will impact environmental health--notably through data-driven sustainability improvements in food production, which is currently one of the most significant contributors to global climate change. 


To tackle those challenges, the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics, the Centre for Law, Technology and Society, and the Institute for Science, Society and Policy bring together leading scholars at the University of Ottawa to support public policy makers on the benefits and challenges of AI related to the health of humans and non-human environments with the overall goal of contributing to human flourishing into the 21st century. 

Housed at the University of Ottawa’s AI + Society Initiative, the new Project on AI for Healthy Humans and Environments will adopt a problem-based approach and will address issues through transdisciplinary research, and including industry, community and government partners as part of the research team. The project aims at developing tools and a framework to support policy-makers in Canada and abroad in implementing “smart” changes–ones which support AI-powered healthcare and sustainable food production.


The research program will be organized in two streams:

  • AI and the Future of Healthcare
    Advancements underway in AI have portended to transform our world on the scale of past Industrial Revolutions. Current legal and regulatory regimes—protecting patient safety, privacy and other values—were developed for an era of medicine that will be eclipsed. For AI health technologies to deliver optimal and equitable health care benefit to all Canadians, we should proactively identify and address how to ensure our regulatory governance is equal to the benefits and challenges emerging with new technologies. The research will support Canadian regulators (at federal, provincial, hospital and health professional levels) to cumulatively enable the rapid infusion of beneficial AI into healthcare systems that empower patients and their health care providers while ensuring appropriate regulation for quality, safety and privacy.
  • AI and the Future of Environment
    AI promises to revolutionize agriculture and drastically reduce its environmental loading by allowing for the precise use of resources through big data-driven advice generated by ML. However, this sustainability promise of AI remains largely untested. As well, preliminary studies suggest that while AI may help solve environmental challenges it may raise social issues such as exaggerating power inequity in the food system. The proposed project aims to shed light on both the environmental and social impacts of big data and AI in food production, with a focus on what policy-makers could do to enable the sustainability gains presented by emerging digitization while fairly distributing its risks. 


The project is led by Dr. Kelly Bronson (Canada Research Chair in Science and Society; ISSP Core member; CLTS Faculty member), Dr. Colleen M. Flood (University Research Chair on Health Law and Ethics; Director, Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics; CLTS Faculty member), and Dr. Florian Martin-Bariteau (University Research Chair in Technology and Society; Director,  Centre for Law, Technology and Society; Director, AI + Society Initiative).

Designed as part of the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue, the Project on AI for Healthy Humans and Environments will build on the expertise developed at Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics, the Centre for Law, Technology and Society, and the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, in collaboration with a network of leading experts the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability, the LIFE Institute, the Centre for Governance, and the Centre for Public Law.


This new research project is supported by the transformative gift made by alumnus Alex Trebek last fall to the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue to help the University of Ottawa starts a new campus-wide public policy initiative to showcase its tremendous strengths in public policy and capitalize on its privileged position in a G7 capital.

Back to top