Computing scientist recognized for lifetime of work in AI

Jonathan Schaeffer has received a lifetime achievement award from CS-Can | Info-Can.

Katie Willis - 2 February 2021

For more than 35 years, the University of Alberta's Jonathan Schaeffer has led the pack in the field of artificial intelligence—from a still-unbeaten computer program for playing checkers to co-founding the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute. Now, in recognition of his decades-long career, Schaeffer is being honoured with a lifetime achievement award by CS-Can | Info-Can, the Canadian computer science academic association. 

“The meaningful aspect of the award is that it was recommended by and decided by my peers. That kind of recognition is very special to me,” said Schaeffer, a professor in the Department of Computing Science. “It was a surprise. I still have a ‘lifetime’ of contributions to make.” 

Announced on February 1, this lifetime achievement award recognizes computing scientists who have made outstanding and sustained contributions to Canadian computing over the course of their careers. 

“I am delighted to see Jonathan be awarded the lifetime achievement award by CS-Can | Info-Can,” said Matina Kalcounis Rueppell, dean of the Faculty of Science. “He was a visionary leader for the Faculty of Science who prioritized and delivered on excellence in education and research. This award recognizes that his dedication to our faculty did not distract from his academic pursuits in computing science in Canada.”

It is Schaeffer’s expertise in and contributions to the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and its application in high-performance computing that have earned him this acknowledgement. And while it may seem strange for the uninitiated, much of his research has centred on the study of games, such as checkers, chess, and poker. 

On his game

"Early on in the history of AI, chess was called the 'drosophila' of AI—chess is to AI research as the fruit fly is to genetics research," says Schaeffer. "Games are nice environments to experiment in. Chess in particular: the space is fixed, the rules don't change, there is no random element, and everything is known about the state of the game—it's 'simple' in comparison to the real world."

In 1986, Schaeffer completed a chess program that tied for first place in the World Computer Chess Championship. Following this, he took on the game of checkers with the creation of Chinook, a checkers program that was the first to win a human world championship. Chinook remains undefeated since 1994. “Since then we worked on improving the program until 2007 when we announced that we had solved the game—Chinook was perfect in that it would never lose, and if you made a mistake, it could win,” he explained. 

In 1995, Schaeffer and graduate student Darse Billing started the Computer Poker Research group. By 2003, the team had created the first program that was competitive against skillful human players. In 2007, Schaeffer passed the torch to Professor Michael Bowling, who has stirred the group forward, developing superhuman poker-playing programs. Since that time, Schaeffer has also led a group of computing scientists dedicated to developing computer programs for playing Texas hold ‘em poker. 

"First, checkers fell to computers at UAlberta in 1994, then chess to the Deep Blue team in 1997, which included UAlberta alumni Murray Campbell. More recently, scientists at UAlberta tackled poker," says Schaeffer. "The games we work on get more complicated and challenging-and that means we learn new things about AI."

A lifetime of achievement

The Faculty of Science is home to some of the top AI and machine learning (ML) research in the world. In fact, Since 2000, metrics-based has placed our expertise in AI in the top four in the world—and second in North America.

When asked about his time at the U of A, Schaeffer highlighted the value of a great working environment. “One should not underestimate the value of working with colleagues (faculty, staff) that are talented, supportive, and friendly,” he said. “I've been around enough to know that not all universities have that special environment. As well, I have been privileged to work with great undergraduate and graduate students. When work is rewarding and fun, who would want to move?”

Since coming to the U of A in 1984, Schaeffer has also had an illustrious career in academic administration, both within the Faculty of Science and at the institutional level. He has held such roles as associate vice president of information and technology, chair in the Department of Computing Science, as well as six years as dean in the Faculty of Science. 

“As Jonathan climbed up the ladder of University administration and now back at the rank and file, he has always demonstrated, in words and actions, his undivided commitment to the academic endeavour. We are very glad to see him receiving such fitting recognition from his Canadian colleagues,” said Mario Nascimento, professor and chair in the Department of Computing Science. 

Schaeffer has received a number of awards during his career, including being named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, as well as receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Society of Computational Studies of Intelligence in 2008. 

His work has also included co-founding the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), an Edmonton-based organization designed to accelerate the adoption of AI in industry. Schaeffer is also the founder of Onlea, a U of A spinoff company dedicated to innovative online learning. 

As for what the future holds, Schaeffer is setting his sights on demystifying the world of AI and ML for non-academics. “I am working on a project that I hope will have much more impact than another research paper that few people will read,” he said. “I am working on a book that explains, in a fun way, artificial intelligence to the layperson. This term I am turning the ideas for the book into a new course called CMPUT 297: AI for Non-Scientists.”

Congratulations, Jonathan!