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Eight U of T artificial intelligence researchers named CIFAR AI Chairs

Posted in Community, Featured

Published on December 13, 2019 with No Comments

Eight University of Toronto artificial intelligence researchers – four of whom are women – have been named CIFAR AI Chairs, a recognition of pioneering work in areas that could have global societal impact. 

One of the new chairs is Anna Goldenberg, an associate professor of computer science in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science and the first-ever chair in biomedical informatics and artificial intelligence at the Hospital for Sick Children. She and her colleagues, including U of T’s Dr. Peter Laussen, have developed a computer model that uses signals in physiological data, such as a patient’s pulse, to detect an oncoming heart attack – giving doctors and nurses vital minutes to intervene and save an infant’s life. 

The early-warning system has been able to predict 70 per cent of heart attacks at least five minutes – and up to 15 minutes – before a patient’s heart stops beating. 

“In machine learning and health care, the key word is prevention,” says Goldenberg, whose team is on track to have the system tested in a silent trial in a clinical environment.

The CIFAR AI Chairs each receive five years of dedicated funding and are a key part of the country’s $125-million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, which seeks to attract and retain the top minds in the field. (See the full list of eight CIFAR AI Chairs from U of T below.)

The latest CIFAR AI Chairs announcement comes on the heels of major investments in Toronto’s burgeoning AI scene. U of T alone has attracted $244 million in direct research funding in AI over the last five years, while a who’s who of multinational tech companies – from Nvidia and Uber to Google and Samsung – have either set up or expanded AI research labs in Toronto with a U of T researcher at the helm.

Meantime, a new generation of AI experts are flocking to Toronto to take up the torch from celebrated pioneers like U of T University Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hinton. Like Goldenberg, many now split their time between U of T and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which was created in 2017 to attract and retain top talent in the field.

In fact, U of T and Vector recently created three new tenure-stream faculty positions in deep learning, a sub-field of artificial intelligence, in Hinton’s honour after he won the prestigious A.M. Turing Award earlier this year.

“Today’s announcement by CIFAR will help U of T and Vector continue to attract and nurture top talent in AI while maintaining Canada’s leadership in a field with revolutionary potential,” says Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives.

“Researchers around the world recognize U of T’s well-earned reputation as an AI powerhouse and are keen to be part of the growing innovation ecosystem of startups and AI research labs in one of the world’s most welcoming and diverse cities.”

Two members of the latest cohort of CIFAR AI chairs – Chris Maddison and Jakob Foerster – were recently wooed to U of T after completing their PhD studies at Oxford University. Animesh Garg, who is also a senior research scientist at Nvidia, joined U of T’s department of computer science last summer. 

As for Goldenberg, she has worked with Dr. David Malkin, a senior staff oncologist at SickKids and U of T professor of pediatrics, as well as other colleagues, to develop computer models that can predict in what part of the body a malignancy will form in patients with Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a genetic disease that predisposes people to a wide range of cancers.

She says the algorithms are meant to be an “assistive tool” to help guide hospital staff’s decisions, not dictate them. 

SickKids collects 200,000 bytes of data per second, Goldenberg notes, about equal to the amount of water in cubic feet that flows over Niagara Falls.

Being named a CIFAR chair is an honour and a sign that the community recognizes the value and promise of machine-learning research and its potentially revolutionary applications in health care, according to Goldenberg. She adds that it’s “very admirable CIFAR is recognizing the importance of diversity,” by seeking out and supporting women, who only represent about 14 per cent of researchers in the field.


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