Feb. 2, 2023

Accolades and awards pile up for Schulich researcher

Yani Ioannou rewarded with Amazon Research Award for his efforts in machine learning
Yani Ioannou
Yani Ioannou is one of only a handful of people who recently received an Amazon Research Award. Fritz Tolentino

It wasn’t that long ago when surfing the internet involved bleeps and bloops while users hoped others in the house didn’t pick up the phone.

The world of connectivity and technology has changed dramatically over the last two decades, with machine learning and artificial intelligence becoming more than just a science-fiction story.

Dr. Yani Ioannou, PhD, has dedicated his research to understanding and improving these technologies to make them more accessible, inexpensive and, believe it or not, smarter.

His work on developing more-efficient deep neural networks (DNNs) — the technology that allows us to search the photos on our mobile devices, ask questions of smart assistants or use machine translation to understand a foreign language — has captured the attention of many in the technological world and has been widely used in enabling artificial intelligence (AI) applications like facial recognition on smartphones.

Ioannou was one of only 20 researchers in Canada to be awarded a DND/NSERC Discovery Grant Supplement, a joint initiative between the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and, most recently, he was among 51 researchers from around the world recognized with an Amazon Research Award.

Exponential growth

Winning the awards came as a huge surprise to Ioannou, who joined the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Software Engineering in September 2021.

“These awards were the first two research proposals I wrote,” he says. “Writing proposals for grants and awards such as these isn’t something I ever had the experience of doing before, and I wasn’t sure I’d be successful, especially in a highly competitive field of candidates.”

With regards to the Amazon award, Ioannou says it’s an honour to be included among some of the world’s leading researchers.

Yani Ioannou at desk

Yani Ioannou works at his desk in January 2023.

Fritz Tolentino

He says it wasn’t that long ago that he was a high school student taking part in a computer science summer outreach program from the University of Toronto.

After hearing a talk from deep learning pioneer Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, PhD, Ioannou was hooked on computer vision and neural networks, leading to a post-secondary journey that concluded with completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2018.

“As someone who was the first in my family to attend university, never mind graduate school, research wasn’t even on my radar before that talk,” he says. “This really goes to show the impact that university outreach programs can have.”

An exercise in networking

The Amazon award was given to Ioannou for his work on machine learning algorithms and theory, regarding what is called “catastrophic forgetting.”

He says DNNs can’t learn like humans do, like learning different tasks easily, and don’t easily learn or adapt to new data while interacting with the real world.

“It means we typically have to use multiple models for different tasks, even when those tasks are very related,” Ioannou says. “We can’t put a neural network in some application and expect it to be able to adapt to new data or conditions that it encounters.”

These fundamental problems, along with the increasing costs associated with improving the technology, has led to the development of sparse neural networks (SNNs).

“These networks present potential solutions to several of these problems, and addressing any one of these problems could have a large real-world impact on the increasingly large number of applications of DNNs,” Ioannou says.

Focused on the future

As the technology continues to evolve, Ioannou has no shortage of focuses for his research in the future.

He says it’s very expensive to learn and apply a DNN to new tasks, so he would like to find ways to make it more accessible.

Ioannou says the support he has received allows him to think bigger about his projects and accelerate his research program.

“Perhaps most importantly, it allows me to increase the number of graduate and undergraduate students I can train in what is a very in-demand field of expertise that will drive Alberta and Canada’s future,” he says.

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