Technology: Beautiful Minds

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Mohammad Iqbal Khan is part of a vast army of researchers that has been pursuing the Holy Grail of the computer world: artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is the ability of machines to duplicate intelligent behaviour, such as decision-making, planning and natural language. Computers can do amazing things these days, but critics of AI claim that if the electronic device can’t “understand”, there’s no sign of intelligence.

The Centennial College professor of applied information sciences says that after 40 years of hard work, the AI community has redefined their goal in more attainable terms.

“It’s now been defined as the ability to survive unforeseen circumstances – it’s a test of evolution,” he says. By way of example, he points to his high-tech office telephone, which is networked to function as an internet device.

“It only works within set limits. It has to have electricity, a network connection, even the right temperature. Take any of these things away and the telephone becomes useless. It can’t adapt.”

On the other hand, humans have a remarkable ability to adjust, he explains. Self-preservation is imprinted in the brain, and the individual has the intelligence to seek shelter, warmth, shade, water – whatever is required to sustain life. “Humans are really, really complex. You don’t realize just how awesome human design is until you try to duplicate it in a machine,” says Khan.

The 55-year-old professor has seen and done a lot since his boyhood years growing up in Faisalabad, an industrial centre in the Punjab province of Pakistan. He attended the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, where he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.

His first job was for a large European technology firm in Pakistan where he was given a sales position. He moved on to work for the local electrical power authority as an electricity salesman.

“It was a politically expedient way to employ large numbers of recent engineering graduates coming out of Pakistan’s schools but I couldn’t live with the corruption that I witnessed,” recalls Khan. So he emigrated and took an engineering job in Iran, working on a new lead and zinc processing plant.

“I became fluent in Persian in a very short time, which made me popular at work,” says Khan. It wasn’t long before he became chief electrical engineer, then assistant plant manager.

But the Iranian Revolution exploded in 1979, and Khan was pressured to stay and run the plant after the Europeans had been expelled. He wasn’t happy but he was able to convince the powers-that-be that he would benefit from further education by enrolling in a master’s program at Queen Mary, University of London. “By the time I finished my master’s, the Iran-Iraq War had broken out and I had no desire to go back, so I started my Ph.D. in artificial intelligence.”

Five years later, he landed his first teaching job at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He designed the master’s program in information technology which had become a popular new career destination.

In 1992 he married a woman from Toronto in a traditional ceremony in Pakistan. They returned to Scotland to resume their life together, but his wife disliked Glasgow’s rainy weather and the pair decided to look for an alternative place to live. The young family relocated to Southampton in the south of England, where Khan became a senior lecturer at Solent University. Not surprisingly, artificial intelligence consumed a major part of his lectures and research.

They eventually settled in Toronto. Khan landed a permanent position at Centennial College, where he created the curriculum for the college’s first four-year degree program.

The Computer and Communication Networking program, and its sister degree program in Software Systems, benefit from state-of-the-art laboratories that have yet to be duplicated by another Ontario college or university.

“A few years ago, Centennial was the first college to have a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, defined as the transmission of voice conversations over the internet or through any other IP-based network) lab. Now, we’re the first to establish a WIMAX (technology that provides wireless connection over long distances in a variety of ways) laboratory for use by our students,” says Khan.

Both, VoIP and WIMAX are leading edge technologies used by government institutions, IT companies and some of the most traditional universities. Thanks to initiatives like these, Centennial can provide a better academic experience for their students.

Khan is proud of everything he has accomplished at Centennial in a few short years. “We teach the principles of networking through hands-on learning. At university, they’re still teaching it on a blackboard with a piece of chalk.”

As for furthering the science of artificial intelligence, it’s a labour of love that continues to occupy his mind – which, ironically, is a beautiful piece of engineering that may never be duplicated in silicon.

For more information about Centennial’s engineering technology programs, visit www.centennialcollege.ca/future/message.jsp.

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