Over the summer, University of Toronto students across all three campuses applied to U of T’s first 99AI Challenge. The challenge aims to educate as many people as possible about the fundamental concepts of artificial intelligence (AI) and is open to students without a science or technology background.

Michael Serafin, UTM Library Technologies & Liaison Librarian and the UTM Library Lead of the 99AI Challenge, states that the program focusses on covering “the basics and showing [students] how [AI] works.”

The program currently has 99 participants including undergraduate and graduate students, U of T faculty and staff, and community members.

Serafin adds that the organizers opted to select 99 people for the program because they “wanted a manageable number.” Furthermore, the number was inspired by the U of T student population in 2016. “99 is roughly 0.1% of the university’s population [of 88, 766 students] in 2016,” Serafin explains.

Serafin notes that “[the organizers] deliberately wanted a range of people from a broad background [when selecting] the people that were accepted into the program.” The challenge was well-received and there were “well over 250 applicants. The biggest group [of applicants] was students but there were still a lot of staff and faculty as well.”

The program itself consists of an online course that participants were instructed to complete over the summer. The course, Elements of AI, was designed by the University of Helsinki and is available for free online for students who are not in the 99AI program but still interested in learning about AI. 

Another component of the 99AI challenge is the six talks the University of Toronto librarians will be hosting throughout the year. The talks will be given by guest speakers who are from a variety of backgrounds and technology experts.

Serafin details how they selected experts in areas such as ethics, privacy, and robotics. “The idea was not to only talk about the technical [aspects of AI] but also other implications of it [such as in] education [and] the workplace.”

The AI challenge covers a broad spectrum of topics over the course of one school year. Participants will learn about the larger concepts of what AI is and how it is used in the real world. 99AI will also discuss the implications of using artificial intelligence.

Serafin says that through this project, he and his fellow librarians hope to encourage participants to increase the conversation around artificial intelligence.

“Ultimately, [we] want to introduce other topics of AI so that we can start discussing AI through other lenses and get more people thinking about [the] different aspects of AI and its implications. [My colleagues and I] all feel [that] in the future, AI will be a big part of our lives, so we want to start the discussion to bring more attention to these issues.”

Discussion has been at the heart of 99AI since its conception. The program began as an interest group organized by the University of Toronto libraries. Interested librarians met up regularly to discuss issues related to AI. “One librarian in particular applied for the Chief Librarian Innovation Interest Grant. She put together the proposal and we won the grant following which we started planning early last year.”

Serafin adds that the other organizers and himself hope to make 99AI an annual project. “There’s certainly interest. The program is at capacity this year. We’ll have to assess the program after its first year and [various factors such as] funding.”

Lastly, Serafin stresses that 99AI was very much a collaborative project.

The following librarians from the University of Toronto St. George campus contributed to this project: Lise Doucette, the Data and Statistics Librarian at the Map & Data Library; Christina Kim, the Liaison Librarian; Carey Toane, the Entrepreneurship Librarian at the Gerstein Science Information Centre; and Michelle Spence, the Engineering and Computer Science Librarian at the Engineering & Computer Science Library.

Additionally, Pauline Rousseau, the Acting Coordinator of collection development and Liaison Librarian of Arts, Media & Culture at the U of T Scarborough campus was also involved in the organization of the program and the selection of entrants.

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