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University of Washington computer science professor Yejin Choi wins $800K ‘genius grant’ – GeekWire

Yejin Choi. (Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Yejin Choi, a University of Washington computer science professor and senior research manager at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), won a $800,000 “genius grant” given annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Choi, one of 25 MacArthur Fellows for 2022 revealed Wednesday, is an expert in natural language processing. Her work aims to improve the ability of computers and artificial intelligence systems to perform commonsense reasoning and understand implied meaning in human language.

“This is such a great honor because there have been only two other researchers in the natural language processing field who have received this award,” Choi told UW News.

Choi spoke to GeekWire earlier this year about the debate over a robot’s ability to have human-like feelings. She also helped lead research on AI2’s Delphi tool, a machine ethics AI designed to model people’s ethical judgments on a variety of everyday situations.

“Traditionally, NLP models are grounded or programmed via textual inputs only,” reads her bio on the MacArthur Fellows Program website. “Choi has designed models that use both textual descriptions and images of objects to reinforce one another, in a manner similar to the way humans acquire knowledge about the world.”

Choi, 45, received her Ph.D in computer science at Cornell University and earned a bachelor’s of science in computer science and engineering at Seoul National University in Korea. She joined the UW in 2014.

Other UW computer science professors to win the MacArthur grant include Shwetak Patel in 2011 and Yoky Matsuoka in 2007. Patel, who sold startups to GoogleBelkin and Sears. remains at the UW. Matsuoka became an executive at Google and is now leading a new $149/month personal assistant service called Yohana.

Choi is also the 14th person to be a current UW faculty member at the time of the award. Last year, Trevor Bedford, a epidemiology expert and affiliate associate professor of genome sciences, won the grant.

Choi divides her time between the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and AI2, the Seattle-based artificial intelligence research organization founded by Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder.

“Her deep connection with AI2, and the Allen School’s overall deep connection with AI2, has been important to her amazing productivity — a double win for Paul!” said Ed Lazowska, a longtime UW computer science professor and former chair of the computer science department.

The MacArthur grants are described as “no strings attached” and are paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years. The award goes to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to the foundation.

“Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential,” the foundation notes. “Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

Here’s a description of Choi’s work from the foundation:

The ability to reason, or make inferences, is beyond the reach of existing AI systems because it requires implicit knowledge about how the world works. Choi recognized that rules-based models, such as logic or conditional probabilities, are too rigid to encompass the complexity of commonsense knowledge and thinking. Instead, she uses computational methods for understanding language, or NLP, to develop commonsense knowledge and reasoning models.

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