With U of T innovators front and centre, Collision conference wraps up five-year Toronto run


U of T alumna Nuha Siddiqui, co-founder and CEO of Erthos, on stage at the Collision tech conference (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Budding entrepreneurs, leading scientists and future business leaders from the University of Toronto community played a leading role at the 2024 Collision tech conference in downtown Toronto.

Running over three days this week, the conference drew some 40,000 attendees from across the spheres of tech, business and media, including more than 1,600 startups and 700 investors.

The rapid development of artificial intelligence technologies and their impact on business and society were key themes for many of the conference’s keynotes and exhibits – so it was no surprise that U of T’s AI luminaries were front and centre.

They included U of T alumnus Aidan Gomez, co-founder of language processing startup Cohere – which has raised hundreds of millions from investors and generated significant industry buzz.

He urged businesses to commit to adopting AI tools to support their workers.

“Making sure that you’re delivering the tools that your employees need to be competitive and effective is crucial,” Gomez said during his talk on Tuesday.

He added that augmentation of workforces with AI co-pilots and assistants is inevitable – including in industries that might not stand out as obvious adopters of the technology. He shared the example of a natural resources insurance firm that built an AI co-pilot – powered by Cohere – to help their actuaries speed up their research, craft more accurate bids and win more contracts.

“I never would have thought a natural resources insurance company would be adopting LLMs [large language models], but they are, and it’s having an impact. It’s actually helping them win more business,” Gomez said. “So I think the technology is completely horizontal.”

Gomez also cited the medical sector – particularly, drug discovery – as another area that’s poised to benefit massively from AI advances.

Aiden Gomez on the main stage at Collision 2024
Aidan Gomez, a U of T alumnus, talked about how AI will be used to augment the workforce (photo by Polina Teif)

University Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hinton, the influential computer scientist often dubbed the “godfather of AI,” also identified medical care and productivity as two key areas that will see significant improvements thanks to AI. However, much of his discussion, titled "Can We Control AI?", focused on his previously-cited concerns about how AI development could ultimately wrest control from humans given the current race to develop the technology and the absence of sufficient safeguards.

“Even if I’m totally benevolent and I just want to achieve what you asked me to achieve, I’ll realize that if I get more control, it will be easier to do that,” Hinton said of AI agents.

“And actually, if these things are much smarter than us, they’ll realize: Just take the control away from people and it will be much more efficient … and that seems to be like a very slippery path.”

Geoffrey Hinton on the main stage at Collision 2024
Geoffrey Hinton warned of the existential dangers posed by unchecked AI development (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Gomez, for his part, said he doesn’t believe AI poses a serious threat.

“The notion that the technology is going to start self-improving, that it’s going to start manipulating people, that it’s going to take over, seize power and displace humans: that’s a sci-fi narrative,” he said. “I am empathetic to it – we’ve been writing stories about that exact scenario for decades, since before computers, and so it’s very deeply embedded in our cultural brainstems ... I just don’t think it’s true.”

Earlier at the conference, Raquel Urtasun, founder of self-driving trucking startup Waabi, spoke about generative AI and how Waabi is applying the technology to autonomous trucks. Her keynote took place following the company’s announcement that it raised US$200 million in Series B funding to support the deployment of driverless trucks in 2025.

“Everything will be controlled by generative AI systems inside the vehicle and nothing else. This is a breakthrough for the industry, where such a thing has never happened before,” said Urtasun, a professor in the department of computer science in U of T's Faculty of Arts & Science.

Raquel Urtasun on the main stage at Collision 2024
Raquel Urtasun spoke about her self-driving truck startup Waabi (photo by Polina Teif)

The conference also featured demos from other promising U of T startups including Erthos, which has invented sustainable alternatives to plastics and is now using machine learning to accelerate biomaterials discovery.

“Our platform allows us to design effective biomaterials five times faster and with 92 per cent less cost compared to our industry,” said co-founder and CEO Nuha Siddiqui.

crowds inside the 2024 Collision conference floor
Collision’s final year in Toronto was expected to draw some 40,000 attendees (photo by Johnny Guatto)

During the conference, U of T’s booth near the main stage featured exhibits from campus-linked accelerators, institutional strategic initiatives, academic divisions and the Innovations and Partnerships Office. U of T’s Black Founders Network was also at Collision as one of the organizers of the Black Innovation Zone.

Collision 2024 marked the fifth and final edition of the annual conference in Toronto.