The Waterloo AI Institute: Reflecting on past successes and charting a new course

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

From self-driving cars to intelligent voice assistants to smart factories, artificial intelligence — or AI — is transforming every sector of the economy and the very fabric of society in fundamental ways. The University of Waterloo, a long-time leader in innovation, has been at the forefront of this transformation for decades, but especially so since the 2018 launch of the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute — Waterloo.AI.

Under the guidance of founding Co-directors Fakhri Karray, Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Peter van Beek, Professor in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, Waterloo.AI today boasts more than 200 affiliated faculty members with 450 graduate students and research scientists across all six faculties at the University of Waterloo. 

Over the past three years — and through a pandemic, no less — Waterloo.AI’s multidisciplinary research teams have been collaborating with partners across multiple sectors of the Canadian economy including financial, automotive, health, and manufacturing to develop intelligent systems in areas as diverse as disease detection and treatment, understanding language and emotion, autonomous vehicle navigation, and social robotics, to name just a few examples.

Since its inception, the Institute has organized more than 20 workshops, seminars, and industry day events. In collaboration with its 21 industry partners, Waterloo.AI has disbursed millions of dollars to support more than 50 research projects and initiatives, including AI Institute scholarships. Research conducted by the Institute has been disseminated in top technical venues. Waterloo.AI projects are building tomorrow’s intelligent systems today, by translating industry demands into deployable solutions.

Yet, as artificial intelligence becomes interwoven into our daily lives, many challenges lie ahead. We have witnessed some high-profile deficiencies of AI systems, for example, object recognition systems mis-tagging people, chatbots spewing misogynistic hate, racist risk assessment algorithms, self-driving car crashes, and adversarial attacks against AI systems. These unfortunate mishaps and malicious attacks are caused, at least in part, by data issues. Given the growing prominence of AI-based decision-making in consequential spheres of human activity such as medicine and law, it is clear that for AI to continue to have positive societal impact, we must consider AI systems in the broader context of data that feed it as well as processes of how they are acquired, manipulated, and used.

In short, artificial intelligence needs data science — which the AI Institute characterizes as a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to problem solving that focuses on how data are collected, curated, integrated, processed, analyzed, and visualized. To this end, Waterloo.AI is positioning itself to integrate tightly both data science and artificial intelligence, tackling both foundational scientific challenges as well as its operational aspects.

New Waterloo.AI Co-directors Professors Jimmy Lin and Vijay Ganesh

photo of Professors Jimmy Lin and Vijay Ganesh

Recently appointed co-directors Jimmy Lin, Professor and Cheriton Chair in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, and Vijay Ganesh, Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will lead expansion of this scope to encompass the University’s leading research in data science and artificial intelligence, while formally recognizing Waterloo.AI as a university-level Institute.

As Professors van Beek and Karray reflect at the conclusion of their terms as co-directors, “We are proud of what we’ve built in the Waterloo AI Institute, which has fostered fundamental and applied research in AI and machine learning across campus. Beyond providing a competitive edge for our industry partners, AI for social good has also been a pillar of the Institute's vision. We are excited to have Vijay and Jimmy build on these strengths.”

In years to come, artificial intelligence and data science will lead to economic prosperity and improved quality of life for people all around the world. The Institute will remain at the forefront of innovation in these areas, translating research into positive societal impact. Waterloo.AI is just getting started.

If you’d like to join Waterloo.AI on this journey, understand how artificial intelligence and data science can benefit your organization, or gain access to top talent, connect with Waterloo.AI at waterlooai@uwaterloo.ca and its website at http://waterloo.ai.

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