Kory Mathewson

Top 40 Under 40 2016

Photography Curtis Comeau

Age: 29

Job Title: University of Alberta Bionic Limbs for Improved Natural Control Lab and Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence Lab; Performer, Rapid Fire Theatre

Why He’s Top 40: He’s shared his extensive knowledge of improvisation and artificial intelligence not just in his own community, but on a global scale.

Greatest Fear: “The movie, Idiocracy. It’s about how society becomes full of pleasure seekers and nothing else. It’s terrifying, and you can see it happening in some ways.”

Kory Mathewson stood on a stage with one of his improv partners, Pyggy. But when the audience roared with laughter, his partner messed up. Or rather, she faltered because she was actually a robot, which Mathewson had designed to use artificial intelligence (AI). The robot was programmed to translate Mathewson’s responses, but the laughter confused it.

The robot’s an amalgamation of two passions – artificial intelligence and improvisation. Mathewson’s been improvising for over 10 years through Rapid Fire Theatre, and has performed around the world. Meanwhile, he’s also working on a PhD in artificial intelligence; his thesis, which focuses on interactive machine learning and how we can interact with other intelligences through control and feedback, won an Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship.

But for Mathewson, the goal isn’t just to succeed personally; it’s to help others meet their ambitions. “I’ve gone to cities where people have stuck around and haven’t given back. The stagnation can drive a community apart,” says Mathewson. 

Mentoring future generations, he says, can strengthen communities. He’s conducted improvisation workshops in cities worldwide. He was a 2014 artist-in-residence at the Curious Comedy Theatre in Portland, Oregon. And he’s developed academic improvisation programs to help students become better listeners who are more empathetic, and self-aware.

Mathewson says at their essence, both AI and improv can help people learn to accept mistakes as a natural part of learning. In order for an AI like Pyggy to learn, it needs to fail so it can know what to try next time; and embracing imperfection is the key to success at improv.

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