Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Invent the Future was offered virtually this year and the group photo was taken via Zoom, with the program participants wearing their Invent the Future souvenir hats.

SFU Invent the Future program reaches more students than ever before

July 30, 2020

By Andrew Ringer

For the third consecutive year, SFU’s School of Computing Science hosted the Invent the Future: Artificial Intelligence (AI) Scholars Program. From July 13-24, 36 female high school students explored the world of AI by learning from researchers in the field, participating in workshops, and working on AI projects with other participants and the help of mentors.

Given the challenges due to COVID-19, this year’s program took place virtually rather than at SFU’s Burnaby campus. Despite this, the goals of the program never changed. In fact, moving the program to an online format allowed Invent the Future to expand upon its vision and scope.

“We wanted to maintain four main goals of our program: building community, meeting role models, gaining expertise in AI and developing a portfolio project,” says program co-director and computing science professor Angelica Lim. To ensure the program was accessible for all participants, the organizers provided laptops to those who needed it.

“We are thrilled that the virtual format allowed us to reach more students than ever before,” says Lim.

Invent the Future is typically offered in-person at SFU's Burnaby Campus. This year, the program was offered virtually. Pictured here, computing science professor Angelica Lim is introducing the participants to the Pepper humanoid robot during the 2018 program.

The program is hosted in association with AI4ALL, a non-profit organization working to increase inclusion and diversity in the field of AI. As Canada’s only university in partnership with AI4ALL, moving the event online meant that SFU could attract more participants from across the country and reach populations that would not be able to feasibly travel to the Burnaby campus.

“I’ve never been around this many girls who are interested in technology,” says Zaynah Bhanji, a participant from Toronto. “I really love how this program appeals to everyone. Anyone can join the program and take a lot away from it.”

While some students join the program with previous experience with AI, others are just getting started in the field.

“It’s a really inclusive community where no one judges you if you don’t know certain things,” says Geri Vaflor, a participant who moved to Vancouver from the Philippines just a few months ago. “We’re here to learn, not to compete.”

The community aspect is what encourages alumni mentors like Helen Geng to give back to the program by sharing their knowledge with the participants.

“I just want to be in an environment where I’m surrounded by like-minded people,” says Geng, who did not have prior experience with AI before joining the program in 2019. She is now preparing to study biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota and says that she was influenced by the Invent the Future program when choosing her research path.

This influence can be attributed to the AI research and industry experts that the participants hear from as part of the program. Many of these talks are shared publicly as part of the program’s AI Week lecture series and also serve to show the participants what the future could have in store for them.

“If you go to people that are younger and show them that this can be in their career path, you can change who gets to go to grad school and who gets to be an amazing researcher,” says Sanja Fidler, a professor at the University of Toronto and presenter during the event. “This is the way that the Invent the Future program is changing the world.”

Given that AI has become a regular part of many people’s lives, it is important that the field represents all people and communities. By working to increase diversity in AI, especially by helping close the gender gap, SFU is working to ensure that technology serves everybody.