Abelard Visits the Creative Destruction Lab at the University of Toronto

On October 26, the Abelard School Computer Science class was privileged to attend the Third Annual Machine Learning and the Market for Intelligence Conference hosted by the Creative Destruction Lab at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, one of the world’s premier conferences on this topic. Speakers included leading scientists (such as Carnegie Mellon professor and head of AI at Apple, Russ Salakhutdinov, and MIT professor Max Tegmark), leading investors from Silicon Valley (such as Steve Jurvetson who wrote one of the first cheques supporting Space X and Tesla, and Albert Wenger of the famous New York venture capital firm Union Square Ventures), and pioneering entrepreneurs (such as Elizabeth Caley, whose AI startup to enhance scientific discovery was recently acquired by Mark Zuckerberg). Also making a guest appearance was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Many thanks to Joshua Gans and Jennifer O’Hare for including our students in this conference.

Here are some student reports on this extraordinary event.

Aurora Bolianatz:

While at the Machine Learning and the Market for Intelligence conference on the 26th of October, I got to listen firsthand to many presentations on the future of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human at a time when we are becoming obsolete. The speakers delved into subjects such as embodiment, brain science, and artificial general intelligence; however, the presentations I personally found the most interesting were the ones regarding the future of humans in an AI world, and how we can approach the subject wisely.

The first presenter to really spark an interest in this subject for me was Max Tegmark, a professor at MIT. He spoke about the incredible leaps and bounds AI development has seen in recent years, but also reminded us of how things can go horribly wrong so quickly without proper management. There were four main points he made on how to correctly control the approaching future of AI: the first, to make sure lethal autonomous weapons are banned. Biologists and chemists have both worked hard to ensure that the specialists in their fields use their knowledge for cures and beneficial uses, not for weapons, and both fields have banned bioweapons and chemical weapons. Tegmark encouraged us to follow suit, and make sure AI will be used for good, not evil. This follows through into his second point, using AI wealth to benefit all people, not only a select few. His third point was to invest in safety research, drawing our attention to the Apollo 11 launch, stating that NASA calculated every possible thing that could go wrong, and put safeguards in to ensure that no catastrophes happened. Much like the space launch, AI is a field where it is much better to get everything right the first time instead of learning from mistakes. Finally, Tegmark asks us what sort of a future we wish to see, as that is the truly defining piece for the future of AI.

Another presenter who spoke on the importance of humans in AI was Joshua Gans, professor at the Rotman School of Management at U of T, who discussed the value of data. Though many people today consider data to be immensely valuable, Gans argues instead that the data will become meaningless once used, and the true asset in prediction machines and the like is human judgement. The knowledge and skills we have accumulated as humans are so valuable to the AI process, as we design the machines, give them their purposes, and can clean up after them in case of all hell breaking loose. The human mind is an astonishing thing, and though AI have been able to recreate themselves, they simply cannot ever replace us in every way.

Contrary to the previous two professors mentioned, in his presentation, Ben Goertzel emphasized the importance of leaving humans out of AI development. While I see his point that AI learns better without humans hindering it, I also think his suggestion of a sort of cloud space in which AI could communicate and share information without human guidance is pretty terrifying. The amount of power and knowledge they could potentially accumulate is enough to wipe out humans as a whole, and while I understand that we haven’t been the best for this planet (or each other), as a human, I really like the idea of Not Dying Due to the Robot Overlords. 

Ariel Gans:

The CDL conference was a lot of fun. The talks were all very interesting and I especially enjoyed the surprise visit from the prime minster. The topics I found most interesting were those discussed in the presentations by Richard Sutton of University of Alberta and Suzanne Gildert of Kindred AI. The base idea I liked from those two talks was that in order to prevent a Terminator Judgement Day situation, we need to keep our general intelligences’ goals and ideals in line with ours. This led to the idea that we should aim for cooperation with AIs, not control. If we create a truly sentient AI and we’ve given it our morals and creativity and all that, we’ve made something very human-like. Gildert talked about how these are likely the integrated AIs that we will end up creating. She talked about how there’s a huge market for robots that are essentially flawless humans. And if we create flawless humans, maybe we want to integrate them into society like humans. A strange feeling I got through the end of Gildert’s talk is that if we’ve created artificial beings with our morals and which identify with us and our history, maybe we don’t really need to worry about being wiped out as a race, since a future parallel to or perhaps even replaced by technology is likely going to be our legacy. Another theme of the conference was that a large upside to coming to conclusions like these is that we can prepare for these possible futures, legally and socially, before it’s too late. On the legal side, having a solid framework for technologies like self-driving cars and robotic doctors before they are everywhere greatly reduces the risk of something going horribly wrong. On a lighter note, I learnt that there are machine learning methods far better than deep learning at playing video games, which I found quite interesting. The winning method was the one that was able to strategize in a very human-like fashion, coming up with the “hit the blocks at the top” strategy for brick breaker all by itself.

Dominik Bednarczyk:

The conference hosted by the Creative Destruction lab were incredibly interesting. I enjoyed how they brought in many experts from different fields with different points of view to discuss a variety of ethical and logical issues surrounding the implementation of AI into our society. Being able to see these experts discuss the topics and to learn which ideas conflicted and what they all unanimously agreed on was extremely interesting. My personal favourites were the AI embodiment session and the Vicarious session because the speakers had the most energy and I liked how personal one of the speakers got. I enjoyed the Embodiment lecture in particular because it showed what we still need to work on and what we have already achieved, which allowed me to think about which fields I might want to invest time and effort in to have the least difficulty finding work and helping to speed up progress in the field I particularly enjoy. The Vicarious speaker gave an amazing presentation about the future and compared AI to different levels of consciousness throughout Earth’s history. There were also many interesting startups present,  some of which I already use and others which have huge potential for our society. But obviously the most interesting part was the special guest; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Not only was I excited to see that our prime minister supported the idea of implementing AI into Canadian society and his plans to make Canada the AI hub of the world but being able to ask him questions about the future of AI in Canada was especially amazing. Mr. Trudeau discussed the moral implications of self driving cars, which I am personally very passionate about, and the revelation that he studied and enjoyed poetry in University was particularly funny and interesting. All in all the speakers were amazing to listen to, gave great insight into humanity’s future with technology and were presented in such a way that was easy to understand and grasp.

Konstantin Uvarov:

My favourite thing that I encountered in the Creative Destruction Lab – Artificial Intelligence Conference was a start-up company which helps people immigrate from other countries to Canada. I think that this kind of usage of Artificial Intelligence will be very useful because it will allow people to spend less time filling in documents. All that people will have to do is just to type their information and scan their documents for the program and the program will do the rest of the work for them. It will be very beneficial for both sides: people will spend less time doing their immigration paperwork and the government will not need to worry about hiring lots of people to do the same job as the AI program can do. In conclusion, I also think that this start-up company will become, in the near future, a necessity for a Government of Canada because it will not make any mistakes in laws and will be 100% accurate in making decisions.


Certamen – Abelard Loves Latin

Last week, a group of six students were driven up to Alliston, Ontario by our own Mr. Young for Certamen, a quiz competition that pits teams of students against one another to test their knowledge of Roman history, daily life, mythology, and language. The competition took place at Banting Memorial HS, and Abelard fielded a team in each of the intermediate and senior divisions: Francis, Angelo, and Nicole were our intermediates and Molly, Carmina, and Tas competed in the senior division.

Before the contest, our students spent 80 hours per week preparing for big event. They each had to read and prepare an assigned text, and Mr. Young filled them in on details about what life was like back in ancient Rome. The competition requires a great deal of memorization. On the hour-long drive to Alliston, our teams used the time to quiz one another. There were around 150 other students from really diverse backgrounds at Banting Memorial representing schools across the GTA, and as far away as Waterloo. Some school teams even wore matched Latin club t-shirts.

The competition itself was high pressure. Our students were nervous, but really excited too. Four teams competed at a time, using buzzers to respond to a moderator’s questions. There was considerable strategy in how students approached answering questions, with lots of teams buzzing in early to make an educated guess about what the moderator wanted. After all, the first correct answer got the point, so it was often worth the risk to get ahead of the other teams. However, if they guessed wrong, the team could not submit another answer for that question.

The day began with two rounds of questions that all teams had access to, with 28 questions asked in each round. At the end of this stage, each team’s score was tallied and the best teams moved forward to the semi-finals. We are so proud that both of our teams made it to this next phase. Each round in the semi-finals and finals challenged teams with 56 questions, doubling the scale of the effort. Although our teams did not compete in the finals, the experience was really positive for those who participated. We are already making plans to participate next year, and are considering another Classics competition for high school students that will take place in May this year. It likely won’t surprise anyone to know that Abelard loves Latin!

You Can Help the Sears Drama Festival!

For those who aren’t in the know, the Sears Drama Festival is an annual competition in which high school students perform their very best works and get really vital feedback from established theatre professionals. It’s the oldest theatre festival in Canada, and has launched the careers of stars like Rachel McAdams, David Cronenberg, and Margot Kidder. It’s also a lot of fun!

Because Sears, the company, has gone bankrupt, the Festival was set to be cancelled. Fortunately, a set of new sponsors has stepped in to take over. The Festival will now be run by the National Theatre School (Canada’s major theatre training centre, in Montreal) and IATSE (the union for theatre technicians, among others). They have really great plans, and connect the Festival with the very best that Canada has to offer in terms of theatre training and professional guidance.

However, given the very short turnaround to get the Festival on its feet, they’re running a fundraising campaign to make sure that everything proceeds as usual in 2018. If you know the value of arts education in high school, and are in the position to help them out, you can check out their campaign here. There are 15 Abelardians participating in the Sears Festival this year – they will undoubtedly be grateful for your support!

Abelard is Launching a Middle School!

We are thrilled to announce that The Abelard School will launch a middle school program for students in Grades 7 & 8 in the 2018-19 academic year.

Why Grade 7/8?

A growing number of parents have been enquiring about a middle school programme at Abelard. We are responding to this interest because we believe we are uniquely positioned to offer an enriched, exciting, and challenging curriculum and school experience for students in grades 7 and 8. First, the Grade 7 and 8 curriculum as set out by the Ministry of education contains much repetition: this leaves us space and time to accelerate required content and offer enrichment that goes beyond what you would usually expect in a middle school programme. Additionally, we have found over the years that many students applying to Abelard from Grade 8 don’t yet have the requisite knowledge and skills to make a smooth transition into an academically advanced high school curriculum. By welcoming middle school students at Abelard, we can tailor their education to ensure their ongoing success.

Elevating Students

In our middle school program, we cultivate a passion for learning. At Abelard, this means that we tackle big ideas and big problems in an age-appropriate manner so that students learn to approach the world around them with an open mind. In addition to the knowledge and skills developed by our enriched curriculum, we teach students to be reflective thinkers, caring and principled global citizens, and bold communicators. We elevate our students.

Our Curriculum

We’ve been preparing students to be successful in university for twenty years, now we wish to prepare them for success in high school!

At the high school level, we’ve developed a unique integrated curriculum which stresses the interconnection of academic disciplines. Our exciting middle school programme is designed to introduce young scholars to the symbiotic way that ideas overlap in the real world, preparing middle schoolers with the cultural and historical background necessary to flourish in high school.

Further, we’ve learned over the years that students learn best when they can contextualize the concepts they are being taught. All students, but particularly middle school students, benefit from some hands-on, activity-based learning to augment classroom instruction. Our middle school programme is augmented by interdisciplinary workshops led by our teachers or visiting specialists.

Our regular curriculum is anchored by three foundational components:

  1. The historical context of knowledge. We undertake a study of the sciences, mathematics, literature, history, philosophy, and political ideologies in the context of each of the following periods: the Ancient World, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the Age of Reason.
  2. The integrated core curriculum. A rigorous core curriculum challenges students in English, Math, Science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics), Social Sciences, French, Arts, Healthy and Active Living, and Technology.
  3. The practical application of academics to contemporary world. We apply the knowledge and skills gained through regular student to explore culture, technology, politics, and sociology.

Be in Touch!

We are very excited about this new programme, and invite you to be in touch with us to learn more about the specific ways in which an Abelard education will set up middle school students to flourish. Please call us at 416-944-0661, or write to us at info@abelardschool.org, in order to set up a meeting.

A heartwarming card

Drs. Frank Sottile and Sarah Witherspoon, while on sabbatical at U of T, brought their son Sam to the Abelard School.  We were very touched to receive this card from them, as the year comes to a close.  We will miss Sam, and wish him well as he returns home!Sottile's Card

Joseph Sproule’s 20th Reunion Speech

At Abelard’s 20th Reunion celebration on May 26, 2017, our alumnus Joseph Sproule gave a touching and eloquent speech — he generously agreed to share it on our blog:


Good evening, everyone. It is with great pleasure that I join you all today to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Abelard School.

I had the good fortune to attend Abelard in its first three years, a formative era that may be thought of as a kind of Abelardian Paleozoic, during which the school emerged like some glistening scholastic tetrapod from the steaming jungles and verdant swamps of the late 1990s. Some of you will remember those days well; while others were still young tykes, as yet unaware that you would one day tread the halls of our beloved school. Either way, whether by means of memory or imagination, I ask that you now cast your minds back through the mists of time to the hazy summer of 1997…

Allow me to set the scene: The first Harry Potter novel has just been published; Backstreet’s Back is the number one album in the world; Titanic is pulling in billions at the box office; and, in an old bank building across from an abandoned train station at Yonge and Summerhill, four teachers are in the process of opening a new school.

Who are these intrepid educators? None other, of course, than Abelard’s founders – Michelle Lefolii, Alina Rossinsky, Shai Maharaj, and Brian Blair – a potent pedagogical quadrumvirate brought together by shared vision and a passion for teaching. That vision and passion – as well as a great deal of hard work and dedication over the subsequent two decades – has borne rich fruit: the hundreds of students who have benefitted from Abelard’s unique approach to education; the community that has grown up around the school; and, of course, the Abelard School itself, which continues to go from strength to strength.

But permit me to speak for a moment, not of the Abelard of today – a school coming into its maturity with an established reputation for excellence and a burgeoning legion of alumni – but of those early years at Yonge and Summerhill. It was a time of new beginnings, of infectious imagination, dynamism, and energy. The shape of the school was still being moulded into its now familiar form, as teachers and students came together to participate in a wonderful academic experiment. But, even then, it was already so very Abelardian: brilliant, fun, challenging, and, let’s be honest, at times more than a little bit quirky. Whether reading French literature, learning the functions of the organelles, translating Attic Greek, or playing cards at the picnic table in the school parking lot, I remember there being a vibrant energy in the air. It was more than just the excitement of attending a new institution; it was the sense that we were taking part in the creation of a new community, bearing witness to an idea being transformed by inspired teachers and enthusiastic students into a reality.

Over the years, that idea has taken on a life of its own, and there have been many twists and turns in the Abelard story. Staff and students have come and gone; the school has moved location twice and will soon do so again; new courses have been offered and curricula have changed. But Abelard has remained Abelard, strengthened and sustained by a network of past and present teachers, students, board members, parents, and other friends of the school. The spark that was lit in the summer of 1997 has grown into a sacred flame, lovingly tended for the past two decades by an ever-growing number of people with ties the school. Indeed, one could argue that those people are the school, and the friendship and support that we offer one another is one of Abelard’s most precious legacies. The Abelard School’s gift to its alumni is therefore much more than a rich education and a rigorous intellectual preparation for later life; it is also the circle of friends with whom we continue on our journey long after our high school years are behind us.

Today, seventeen years after I graduated, I still feel as much an Abelardian as ever. I sit on the school’s board, rarely miss an alumni event, and keep in regular touch with my many high school friends. I also feel connected to the school in less tangible but equally important ways. As a doctoral candidate here at the University of Toronto, I’m constantly aware of Abelard’s lingering influence on both my conduct as a student and as a teacher – indeed, on my approach to learning and my attitude to life more broadly. It is a reminder that the Abelardian education not only imparts information but also fosters a truly scholarly ethos – a lifelong commitment to intellectual curiosity – both to seeking knowledge and to sharing it and using it for good. I am certain that in all of your varied and multifaceted lives, you too can identify threads that link you back to Abelard in one way or another.

I would therefore like to finish with an expression of thanks: to the school’s founders for making their dream a reality that has blessed us all; and to the many teachers, alumni, administrators, and friends whose unwavering dedication has strengthened and enriched the school over the years. As the Abelard School prepares to enter a new era in its expanded Church Street premises, I think there is good reason for confidence; the past twenty years have seen the school’s roots grow deep and its foundations strong; and the ongoing support of the Abelard community will no doubt ensure that the school continues to reach ever greater heights in the years to come.

Mr. Young Talks AP Exams

Some of our senior students are in the final leg of their prep for writing the Advanced Placement (or AP) Exams in early May. Abelard is an AP exam centre, and we are proud of our students’ track records on these competitive placement tests. Advanced Placement exams are administered by the College Board, the same organization that runs the SATs, and can be an important part of the Abelardian experience.

Our students should seriously weigh the value of writing these exams. Some European post-secondary institutions, particularly in the UK and Germany, require five AP test scores from applicants. Many universities in North America consider strong results on AP tests as equivalent to first-year courses. This means that, at some schools, students can either skip to second-year classes, leaving more space in their programs for electives, or they can use AP exams to fulfill program breadth requirements. Students who achieve a score of 5 (the highest mark possible) on at least five exams are recognized by the College Board for their accomplishment–a feather in the cap of any high school graduate.

Although there are many disciplines tested by AP exams, our students most frequently write the Calculus, English, French, American History, Psychology, Biology, Physics, and Latin tests. The exams are difficult and shouldn’t be attempted without preparation–both a 90% average in a grade 12 course along with approval from their teacher are usually a good indication that the student is up to the challenge. Students should start thinking about whether or not they would like to write the tests while they are still in grade 9, and can begin preparation as early as grade 10.

While we do insist on at-home study to get ready for these daunting tests, our grade 12 level courses cover much of the curriculum that is on AP exams. Students electing to write should feel well supported in their efforts. Mr. Young coordinates our students’ participation in the APs, so students should speak with him to express their interest. The exams cost around $150 each to write depending on the value of the Canadian dollar at the time of payment. Most students who take on this challenge will write three exams while in grade 11, and another three while in grade 12.

All this said, the AP exams are not required, and may not be the best fit for all students. Those who are interested in applying at schools in the United States, for instance, may find that an SAT or ACT is needed for admission. Whatever path our students choose, we are deeply invested in preparing our them for their best future. Students and parents should speak with us early and often about how we can help them excel.

A New Home for Abelard

We are thrilled to share the news that Abelard has a new home! At the end of this scholarly year we will bid adieu to our College Street location and take up residence in a very safe neighbourhood on the fourth floor of 557 Church Street. Strategically placed in between the University of Toronto and Ryerson, within a short walk of the Yonge/Bloor subway stop, and with dedicated bike lanes leading right to us on Bloor and Wellesley, we are going to be more accessible than ever. In September 2017, our classes will convene there.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the move. As now, Abelard will occupy the entire floor of the building, but our new school is more spacious and has more natural light. Before we take occupancy in August, we are having renovations done to carve out the exact facilities that we need. Students can expect a science lab that is as well equipped as in our current building, but with dedicated plumbing which will allow for more experimentation. Art students will work in a more spacious room. We will have a bigger assembly hall, and the students will have their own lunch room with a kitchen. There are excellent options for students who choose to purchase a lunch in the neighbourhood, including a large Hasty Market on the main floor of our new building.

We hope that you are as enthusiastic as we are. Parents will have a chance to check out the new facilities at their orientation night early in the fall. Alumni are always welcome to stop by for a visit; we hope to see many familiar faces starting in September. Until then, we’ll do our best to keep you up-to-date here!

The Model UN Trip

A group of our senior students recently visited NYC to represent Iceland at the Model United Nations. We are so proud of all the hard work they put into their preparation and for their ‘model’ efforts at the event! We’ll be sharing some students’ accounts of the trip in the next few weeks. Until then, here are some photos from the trip!

Getting Playful

Every year our drama class collaborates on the production of a show. This year we’re thrilled to be staging three one-act-plays: Charlie by Slawomir Mrozek, The Still Alarm by George S. Kaufman, and The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. Together these are funny plays that explore the ephemerality of life, our obligations to others, and the importance of being attentive to the world around us.

George S. Kaufman wrote The Still Alarm in 1925. It is an oddly prescient piece which the class has likened to a popular meme of a cartoon dog sitting complacently in a room on fire. In it, two businessmen are concluding a visit at a hotel when the bellboy arrives to announce that the hotel has erupted in flame. Rather than run to the nearest exit, they take the news in stride and continue to languish in the room. They note coolly that the floor is alarmingly warm and that a crowd has gathered outside the building. When the firemen arrive, the businessmen continue on as though they were hosting visitors. As flames consume the room, one of the firemen pulls out a violin and plays a tune while the play ends.

Charlie was written in 1978 by Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek. At the time of its writing, Poland was still behind the iron curtain; there is considerable evidence that Mrozek hid pointed critiques of his government in his surrealist and sometimes grotesque plays. Charlie is no different. In it, we see a young man bringing his grandfather to see an optometrist. Grandpa is on a mission to shoot a person called Charlie and needs new glasses so that he can identify his enemy. As the play progresses we discover that Charlie can be just about anyone, and Grandpa–freshly equipped with glasses–is quick to label the optometrist as his target. Fearing for his life, the optometrist hastily finds a new Charlie to place in front of Grandpa’s gun. His target dispatched, Grandpa and his Grandson leave the office but promise to come back the following day to shoot again. In its dark humour this text questions where the line is drawn between the individual and the ‘common good,’ while demonstrating how fanaticism slips easily into repression and terrorism.

The Zoo Story is Edward Albee’s first play. It was written in 1958 and is still regularly produced. The play tells the story of two men who meet on a bench in New York City’s Central Park. Peter is a businessman with a family and nice home, and Jerry is a drifter who is desperate for a meaningful conversation. Through a series of provocations, Jerry gets Peter talking about life and its value and manages to shake Peter out of his complacency with a surprise twist ending.

We hope that you’ll join us the evening of May 19th at the Palmerston Library Theatre to see the fruits of all our hard work! Please be in touch with the school for details about tickets.