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Google supports UTSC study on enhanced reinforcement learning

With help from an award from Google, Prof. Blake Richards hopes to improve the learning speed of artificial intelligence. (Photo by Ken Jones)

You’re travelling to a foreign country. You meet someone and the first thing you do is shake their hand. The person tenses up and says, “No, no. We don’t shake hands here. We find it impolite.”

You won’t make that mistake again. Blake Richards, assistant professor in the U of T Scarborough department of Biological Sciences, says this is an example of reinforcement learning, one of the many ways that people learn.

Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers came to realize that like humans, computers also learn from experience. They can’t be preprogrammed to behave in certain ways. Richards is now one step closer to developing artificial intelligence that can learn in the same way as humans, after winning $50,000 from the Google Faculty Research Awards.

“The first part of the proposal is to verify what goes on in the brains of real animals, such as mice, when there’s an unexpected result,” Richards says. “Then we want to see whether or not they’re using a memory from those unexpected results to change their behaviour.”

“The second part is to work with researchers from Google to develop AI systems that emulate the way mice change their behaviour,” Richards adds.

Specifically, Richards aims to develop computers that are able to change their behaviour after only one or two missteps.

“Current algorithms for reinforcement learning are very slow,” Richards says. “A computer has to have thousands of experiences of something to figure out how it should behave.”

For this project, Richards and his team are trying to get AIs to play video games. The ultimate goal is to produce AI robots that can record individual events that might happen to them and keep them around for moments when they do not know how to react otherwise.

The Google Faculty Research Awards holds open calls for proposals on computer science and related topics twice a year. The program offers one-year grants of up to $150,000 for research at the world’s top universities. A total of 122 projects spanning 55 countries received funding in winter 2015.



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