Eight U of T artificial intelligence researchers named CIFAR AI Chairs

Portrait of Anna Goldenberg
Anna Goldenberg, one of eight U of T researchers to be named a CIFAR AI Chair, has developed a computer model that can predict a patient's oncoming heart attack (photo by Johnny Guatto)

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.

In all, CIFAR named 34 new AI chairs across the country, bringing the total to 80 since the program’s inception in late 2018. The new researchers are based at one of three AI centres: Edmonton’s Amii, Montreal’s Mila and Toronto’s Vector Institute. The program, funded by a total of $86.5 million over five years, provides AI experts with stable and long-term funding to support their research.

U of T’s new CIFAR AI chairs at a glance: 

Jakob Foerster will be an assistant professor in U of T Scarborough’s department of computer and mathematical sciences in fall 2020. During his PhD studies at Oxford University, he helped bring deep multi-agent reinforcement learning to the forefront of AI research. He’s interned at Google Brain, OpenAI and DeepMind, and is currently working as a research assistant at Facebook AI Research.




Animesh Garg is an assistant professor of computer science at U of T. He leads Vector’s Toronto People, AI and Robotics research group. He’s also affiliated with the department of mechanical and industrial engineering as well as U of T’s Robotics Institute. Garg, who has graduate degrees from Berkeley and who did his post-doctoral research at Stanford University, is currently researching machine learning algorithms for perception and control in robotics.




Anna Goldenberg is an associate professor in the department of computer science at U of T and a scientist in the genetics and genome biology lab at SickKids Research Institute. Her lab develops machine learning tools to understand disease heterogeneity.    






Chris Maddison will be an assistant professor in the departments of computer science and statistical sciences in 2020. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at U of T under University Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hinton, followed by a PhD at Oxford University. Maddison was part of the Google DeepMind team that developed AlphaGo, an AI-powered program that unseated the human world Go champion.





Sheila McIlraith is a professor in the department of computer science. Before joining U of T, she was a research scientist at Stanford University and spent a year at Xerox PARC, in Palo Alto, Calif. She’s the author of over 100 scholarly articles. Her main research interests include data-intensive sequential decision-making, cognitive robotics and reinforcement learning. 





Gennady Pekhimenko is an assistant professor in computer science. Previously a researcher with Microsoft, he received his PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University and a master’s degree from U of T. His research focus includes computer architecture and machine learning. 





Toniann Pitassi is a professor in computer science with a joint appointment in mathematics. She received her PhD in computer science from U of T and has taught at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Arizona. Her primary research is in computational complexity – understanding which computational problems can be solved efficiently and how. 





Angela Schoellig is an assistant professor at U of T’s Institute for Aerospace Studies who leads its Dynamic Systems Lab. She works on control theory and applying machine learning to drones, autonomous vehicles and other robots.