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UTSC professor honoured for lifetime of contributions to artificial intelligence

U of T faculty member Graeme Hirst was given a national award in May for a lifetime of outstanding contribution to artificial intelligence.

Graeme Hirst has spent his life making valuable research contributions and teaching students in the field of artificial intelligence.

Now Hirst, who has been a faculty member at U of T for 33 years and U of T Scarborough for 31, has received the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Artificial Intelligence Association (CAIAC) in May. The award recognizes a lifetime of scientific accomplishment and extraordinary contributions to AI. It is considered the CAIAC’s highest honour.

“I was very pleased,” says Hirst. He won for his many significant contributions to AI. These include his countless research publications across several areas of computational linguistics and natural language processing, his influence in advancing others who then contribute to AI themselves and his work with multiple AI organizations.

His research includes breakthroughs in detecting Alzheimer’s disease by looking at a person’s writing. His research paper on semantic similarity is considered a foundational piece in its field, along with his doctoral dissertation on the automatic resolution of linguistic ambiguity.

“In my work, I find interesting problems and use things in our toolkit in smart new ways to solve them,” says Hirst.

The award also recognized Hirst for teaching and supervising students who have contributed widely to AI and other fields of science. Most of Hirst’s publications have been with The Computational Linguistics research group of the Department of Computer Science at U of T, many of which Hirst co-authored with students. He has been recognized twice for excellence in teaching by the Computer Science Students’ Union.

Hirst says his fondest memories of U of T are of his students. He has supervised many notable students, including U of T alum Julie Payette, who became the second Canadian woman in space. Another of his students, Kathleen Fraser, recently won a Governor General’s Gold Medal – one of the most distinguished student awards in Canada.

“Fraser’s win is going to be a favourite memory from now on,” says Hirst. “And then there are all the students that didn’t win a Governor General’s Gold Medal, though they probably should have — they have made things interesting and fun along the way.”          

Hirst was also recognized for his contributions within the CAIAC. In the 80s, Hirst revamped the organization’s newsletter into a magazine, called Canadian Artificial Intelligence. The magazine became widely popular and was pivotal in bringing AI researchers together in Canada. At a time of rapid change and advancement in AI, Hirst’s work helped build the field’s momentum in Canada.

“I’ve been lucky in many ways,” says Hirst. “I finished my undergraduate studies just at the time of the first breakthroughs in computational linguistics. My PhD supervisor, Eugene Charniak, was one of the leaders of the field and I obtained a position at a great university.”

Since the early 2000s, Hirst has been a member of the executive board of the Association for Computational Linguistics, an international scientific society for work in computational linguistics. He first joined as Chair of its North American chapter. For the past decade, he has acted as Treasurer of the international board, where he oversees a budget of over $2 million every year.

Among his many research publications, Hirst has written two books. He is also the editor of a book series, Synthesis Lectures in Human Language Technologies, which is considered the leading series in human language technologies. Since he began in 2008, Hirst has edited and overseen the publication of 35 books. He says 10 more will soon be published.

© University of Toronto Scarborough