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HomeNewsUniversity of Washington computer science professor Yejin Choi wins $800K ‘genius grant’

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


Yejin Choi. Photo courtesy 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 is one of the 25 MacArthur Fellows 2022, and an expert on natural language processing. She is a researcher who aims to increase the abilities of artificial intelligence and computers to understand implicit meanings in human languages and perform commonsense reasoning.

“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.

Shwetak Paltel, a 2011 UW computer science professor, and Yoky Moatsuoka (2008) were other recipients of MacArthur grants.

Choi was also the fourteenth UW faculty members to have been awarded the grant at the time. Trevor Bedford, an epidemiologist and associate professor of genomic sciences, was awarded the grant last year.

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 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 MacArthur 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:

Because it involves implicit knowledge of how the world works, the ability to reason or make inferences is not possible with existing AI systems. Choi realized that rules-based models such as logic or conditional probability are too restrictive to accommodate the complexity of commonsense information and thinking. To develop reasoning and commonsense knowledge, Choi uses NLP or computational methods to understand language.

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