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New U of R AI Chair working to keep us safe from malicious software attacks

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: January 19, 2021 10:30 a.m.

Dr. Sandra Zilles, Canada Research Chair in Computational Learning Theory, is one of the researchers who received an AI Chair through the federal government’s CIFAR AI Chairs Program.
Dr. Sandra Zilles, Canada Research Chair in Computational Learning Theory, is one of the researchers who received an AI Chair through the federal government’s CIFAR AI Chairs Program. Photo: U of R Photography

Siri and Alexa. Buyers on e-Bay bidding on a vintage movie poster. Two self-driving cars passing each other on a bridge. At first glance, these may not seem related, but they are all examples of artificial intelligence at work.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is becoming more and more integral to our everyday lives, and the federal government has given a boost to Canadian AI researchers so they can more rapidly increase their contributions to the field.

The University of Regina’s Dr. Sandra Zilles, Canada Research Chair in Computational Learning Theory, is one of the researchers who received an AI Chair and federal funding through the government’s Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) AI Chairs Program. CIFAR is a Canadian-based global research organization.

“This appointment will allow me to bolster current partnerships, and create news ones, as we work together, exchange research ideas, and develop new and important connections between our work,” says Zilles, who will work closely with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) in Edmonton, one of Canada’s three national AI Institutes, along with Mila in Montreal and the Vector Institute in Toronto.

Zilles adds that another exciting aspect to being a Chair and working with Amii will be that she and her colleagues there will also be able to co-supervise students.

“This will introduce our next generation of AI researchers to bigger ideas than would be possible without these collaborations,” says Zilles.

The research that Zilles is conducting with her current students and collaborators includes both applied and theoretical work.

“Trying to ensure computer applications are safe when we use them is one of the applied areas we are working on,” says Zilles. “While applications, such as automated cars, digital assistants, or e-commerce systems, make our lives more efficient, they also open us up to the possibility of malicious software attacks.”

Zilles says that because these types of apps – or agents – rely on being able to communicate with one another, they become vulnerable to what other agents may expose them to.

“It’s harmful if an agent has been hacked. This means that each agent has to be able to assess the trustworthiness of another agent,” says Zilles. “Our work with AI models is trying to establish good methods for assessing agents in multi-agent systems.”

The other side of her work is theoretical.

“We are looking at data that comes in the form of a large number of strings and trying to find ways to succinctly describe them,” says Zilles, who adds that ultimately “we don’t know what our work will lead to, but that’s the magic of fundamental research – we don’t know exactly what will come of our efforts.”

She says that what she’s doing could be compared to better understanding certain kinds of string information, like DNA sequences. Understating the structure of a DNA sequence is very important for better understanding disease and, eventually, treatments.

“If we understand structural patterns and how they behave, then this work can be useful for all sorts of applications.”

Kathleen McNutt, Vice-President (Research), says this appointment is a great opportunity for Dr. Zilles to expand her work in AI and machine learning and to highlight the U of R’s expertise in AI.

“Dr. Zilles is an exceptional scholar and this new role, along with her Canada Research Chair, will help to showcase what is possible for students who want to enter this field of study.”

In 2017, the Government of Canada appointed CIFAR to develop and lead a $125 million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the world’s first national AI strategy. The Canada CIFAR AI Chairs program is the cornerstone of the CIFAR Pan-Canadian AI Strategy and a total of $86.5 million has been earmarked for the program. 

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