if i had to pick organizations that have impacted my current career path most, CIFAR would be very near (if not at) the top of this list. there are a few reasons behind this.
first, CIFAR started a program named “Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception” (NCAP) in 2004, supporting research in artificial neural networks, which has become a dominant paradigm in machine learning as well as more broadly artificial intelligence and all adjacent areas, including natural language processing and computer vision. i started my graduate study in 2009 with focus on restricted Boltzmann machines and graduated in 2014 with a PhD degree, which makes me perhaps the one who has benefited most from this success of deep learning. since this success of deep learning was fostered by CIFAR’s NCAP program already starting in 2004, i could even attribute a large part of my career to CIFAR and its NCAP program. i often wonder what would’ve happened to me and my career post-graduate school, had CIFAR decided to start and support another program. i can only guess it would’ve been very different and that i would’ve been worse off certainly.@
second, CIFAR sponsored the very first publicly-open summer school on deep learning hosted by UCLA IPAM in 2012. i was a graduate student at Aalto University in Finland back then. due to a number of reasons, both political, financial and technical, the Bayes group, to which I belonged back then and which was actually a “neural net” group despite its name, had by then pretty much stopped taking in new students nor new postdocs. i was in a desperate need for meeting peers and talking with them about neural net research (i wasn’t still too familiar with the term “deep learning”, just like many others back then,) not to mention that i really needed to take some courses and learn about various technical aspects of deep learning beyond the limited selection of courses offered back then at Aalto (i mean… the neural net group was essentially at the brink of being dissolved, although this is for another post.) i then learned about this “Graduate Summer School: Deep Learning, Feature Learning” and did not hesitate a second to apply for a seat there. it was a three-week-long program filled up with a series of amazing lectures and lab sessions, allowing me to finally get a bigger picture and learn various technical details behind various algorithms and paradigms.* it was pretty intense, but it was just the right level of intensity that i needed back then. i wonder how my PhD thesis would’ve looked like had i not attended this summer school or even worse had CIFAR not sponsored this summer school in the first place. what a scary thought!
third, i attended the annual summer school organized by CIFAR NCAP (which is now called Learning in Machines and Brains (LMB)) in 2014 hosted at the University of Toronto, as a postdoc at the University of Montreal. it was a very exciting summer school following up on a series of CIFAR NCAP summer schools organized ever since NCAP was created in 2004. the entire summer school was fit in one reasonably small lecture room of U. Toronto, and there were a series of lectures and student talks. because we were all cramped into a single lecture room (talk about pre-pandemic!) it was intensely interactive, and i was just learning so much during those 2-3 days. at this summer school, i presented on-going work on machine translation (so did Ilya Sutskever who gave a much better, slicker and prophetic talk). this is where i coined the term “neural machine translation“, which i believe may be the only lasting contribution i’ve made to the field of machine translation (and i’m proud of myself for it!) in fact, after the school on that day, we all went to one of the dive bars where UT grad students used to hang out (can’t really recall the name anymore..) and were toasting to “neural machine translation”.#
finally, CIFAR has been running a number of programs that are aimed at scientific and social aspects of research, such as a Global Scholar Program sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation, called the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program, and an AI Catalyst program. The Global Scholars program provides a set of opportunities for early-career scholars from a diverse set of disciplines, spanning from political science all the way to cosmology, to not only advance their science but also interact with peers from various disciplines to build up a broader view not only within science but across the society. the AI Catalyst program on the other hand provides funding for proof-of-concept, exploratory and blue-sky projects in order to continue to fuel scientific & societal innovation. i’ve benefited from both of these programs. i was a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar from 2017 to 2019 and thoroughly enjoyed my interaction with peer Global Scholars from a diverse set of disciplines, including cosmology, quantum physics, journalism, biology, etc. i received a Catalyst grant last year (2020) which has allowed me to work with Prof. Jimmy Lin at U Waterloo to build Neural Covidex, a specialized search engine for COVID-19 related literatures and make it publicly available at https://covidex.ai/. truly, these programs have enabled me to go above and beyond my comfort zone both scientifically and socially.
it’s pretty clear i have tremendously benefited from CIFAR over the past decade or so, and perhaps only naturally i want others to experience and benefit from being part of CIFAR both scientifically and socially. in particular, i want scientists from a diverse set of backgrounds and disciplines to enjoy such opportunities, in line with how CIFAR is “committed to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.”
going beyond wanting and wishing this, i’ve decided to more directly contribute to this cause by donating $50,000 USD to CIFAR so that CIFAR can “provide funding resources in support of women and researchers from underrepresented groups to attend professional development opportunities.” it is certainly not a lot, and the impact of this donation on its own will be quite limited. i only wish this would nudge people, including organizations such as governments and companies, to think once more about important roles performed by CIFAR and its likes in supporting innovation and promoting the diversity, inclusion and equity in science.
(@) well.. perhaps most objectively, i wouldn’t have been a Fellow of the Learning in Machines and Brains (LMB) program of CIFAR 🙂
(*) oh, i forgot to mention this even more important tidbit: Geoff Hinton “announced” the success of deep convolutional nets for ImageNet and “described” dropout at this summer school approximately five months ahead of NeurIPS 2012.
(#) these toasts were mainly led by Jamie Kiros who has become my dear friend ever since.