A few of the women behind Canada’s global leadership in AI
Doina Precup, DeepMind
Currently: Head, DeepMind Montreal; Associate Professor, Computer Science, McGill University; Senior Fellow, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research
Expertise: Dr. Precup’s passion for science was ignored as a child growing up in Romania watching sci-fi movies. Today, she is a world-renowned expert in the field of reinforcement learning, a type of machine learning based on behavioural psychology. In essence, how can one get a software “agent” to act in such a way as to maximize its rewards, which is critical to having computers that can plan and reason.
“I look forward to continue training the next generations of machine learning researchers at MILA (Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms) and McGill, fostering diversity and inclusion in the research community through AI projects for social good, and building further the Montreal AI ecosystem.”
Joëlle Pineau, Facebook AI Lab
Currently: Director, Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) lab, McGill University; Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar, McGill University where she co-directs the Reasoning and Learning Lab
Expertise: As co-director of McGill’s Reasoning and Learning Lab, Dr. Pineau focuses on developing new models and algorithms designed to shape the behaviour of robots and machines to better respond to human needs. For example, she was actively involved in the Nursebot project, which developed a nursing-assistant robot prototype that provided help and companionship to elderly individuals, and SmartWheeler, a robotic wheelchair that can be operated by people with severe mobility impairments.
“Much the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, you need an entire community of supporters to champion the growing role of women in STEM and inspire the girls who will follow in their footsteps. I’ve been fortunate throughout my journey to have people who’ve been there to shine a light on what was possible, and I’m encouraged by initiatives like Choose Science that will motivate more women and girls to pursue education and careers in STEM.” (Choose Science is an online campaign that encourages women in science to share their stories with new generations of young women)
Inmar Givoni, Uber ATG
Currently: Autonomy Engineering Manager at Uber ATG
Expertise: Dr. Givoni’s fascination with brain functioning during a high school course sparked her ambition to become a neuroscientist. But it was a course in machine learning while at Hebrew University in Israel that persuaded her to change directions – from studying the brain to building machines that are as intelligent as humans. That new passion led her to the University of Toronto, one of the global leaders in AI research. After earning her Ph.D. in 2011, Dr. Givoni decided to work in industry, rather than academia, “because I feel what I do has a more meaningful impact to people and society,” she said in a June 2016 interview. She continues to be passionate about the recruitment, retention and promotion of women in computer science and engineering, and has been involved in several initiatives, including developing and delivering machine learning workshops for high school girls.
“There’s no point in trying to get more women into AI specifically. I think the effort should be towards getting women into STEM. From my perspective, it basically starts as soon as the baby’s born. When a girl is given a shirt that reads ‘I’m a princess’ and the boy gets one that reads ‘I’m a hero’ it already sets a mindset of expectations for [the child] from society.” (Source: The Review, DMZ Ryerson, Nov. 24, 2017)
Foteini Agrafioti, Chief Science Officer, Royal Bank of Canada; Head of Borealis AI
Currently: Chief Science Officer RBC and Head of Borealis AI, an RBC Institute for Research
Expertise: Dr. Agrafioti is among the dozens of young students who have come to Canada to pursue their dreams of a career in computer science and engineering AI. In 2006, she left her native Greece to pursue a Masters and then a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto’s Biosecurity Lab. In 2012, just one year after graduating, U of T named her “Inventor of the Year” for her HeartID technology, which uses an electrocardiogram to reliably verify a person’s identity. She founded a new Toronto company, Nymi, to commercialize the technology. In 2016, she joined RBC as head of Borealis AI, an RBC Institute for Research – Canada’s first industrial R&D lab for fundamental and applied research in machine learning. In 2017, she was named as one of Canada’s “Top 40 under 40”.
“I wasn’t really into engineering at first. I thought it was a male-dominated field and my perception at that time was that engineers just operated machinery and heavy equipment all day. However, I listened to my parents, pursued my degree in electrical engineering, and ended up loving it. Engineering is a platform for so many things and it lives at the intersection of many disciplines. I’ve done projects in healthcare, fashion, arts, education and even psychology. The possibilities are endless.” (Source: Canada Learning Code, STEM Profile Series, June 2015)