Professor Jimmy Lin has been named a 2022 ACM Fellow for his contributions to question answering, information retrieval, and natural language processing.
The Association for Computing Machinery is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting computing educators, researchers and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources and address the field’s challenges. ACM fellowships are conferred to the top 1 percent of the association’s members, and the prestigious recognition indicates outstanding accomplishments in computing and information technology and outstanding service to ACM and the larger computing community.
This year the Association for Computing Machinery named 57 members as ACM Fellows for wide-ranging and fundamental contributions in disciplines including cybersecurity, human-computer interaction, mobile computing, and recommender systems among many other areas. Fellows are nominated by their peers, with nominations reviewed by a distinguished selection committee.
Professor Lin has been working for a quarter century on the challenge of connecting users with relevant information, at the intersection of natural language processing and information retrieval. He explains, “In the mid-1990s, I learned about question answering systems, which were these seemingly magical interfaces that could directly answer questions like ‘How far is the Earth from the sun?’ posed in natural language.”
“Today, with intelligent agents such as Siri and Alexa, this is no big deal, of course.” Professor Lin went on, “But back then, web search was barely a thing, and yet these systems were already attempting to go beyond simply returning a bunch of links that you then had to sort through.”
More broadly, information access is a fundamental human right, Professor Lin notes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations articulates that everyone has the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Professor Lin has devoted his career to developing technological capabilities, including search and question answering systems, to promote these ideals.
After receiving his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004, Professor Lin started his first faculty position at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the United States. He spent a decade there before joining the Cheriton School of Computer Science as a Professor and a David R. Cheriton Chair in 2015. His arrival at Waterloo was the catalyst for the formation of the Data Systems Group, an assemblage of computer science researchers who collaboratively tackle all phases of the information lifecycle, from ingesting, cleaning, and curation to inference, insight generation, and decision support.
“We are proud of Jimmy’s accomplishments and this well-deserved recognition,” said Raouf Boutaba, Professor and Director of the Cheriton School of Computer Science. “This honour affirms Waterloo’s standing among the top computer science institutions in the world for both research and education.”
Adds Mark Giesbrecht, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics, “Bringing Professor Lin to Waterloo has not only bolstered the research excellence of the university, but also adds depth to the tremendous talent in artificial intelligence here in Canada, particularly in natural language processing and data science.”
Professor Lin believes that to achieve impact, research needs to be deployed in real-world applications that benefit users. Over the years, he’s worked on systems specifically designed for diverse populations, ranging from causal searchers on the web to medical doctors, historians, and data scientists.
Early in his academic career, Professor Lin spent time at the US National Library of Medicine (NLM), part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), working on information access techniques for the biomedical literature. During an extended sabbatical at Twitter over a decade ago, he helped architect and build what we would today call a “data lake” and a data science platform on top. He also worked on Twitter search and recommendation systems during that time, including the popular “who to follow” service. A few years ago, he contributed to voice understanding models that powered the Xfinity X1 entertainment platform by Comcast, the US telecommunications conglomerate, which gave consumers the ability to control their TVs using voice remotes.
More recently, he served as the Chief Scientist of RSVP.ai, a Waterloo-based startup that aims to build deep natural language understanding technologies to facilitate seamless dialogues between users and systems. Currently, he is the CTO of Primal, another Waterloo-based company that aims to help organizations unlock actionable insights from their information stores by combining capabilities based on semantic knowledge graphs and deep learning.
Professor Lin credits the numerous students, collaborators, and colleagues that have accompanied him on this intellectual journey over the years. “This recognition would not have been possible without them,” he acknowledges, “as well as numerous mentors who have guided me along the way.”
In 2021, Professor Lin was appointed the co-director of the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute, which aims to promote cross-disciplinary research at the frontiers of artificial intelligence and its applications across all faculties at the University of Waterloo. The Institute’s emphasis on both foundational advances as well as their applications to tackle real-world challenges aligns perfectly with his approach to research.
Of late, Professor Lin is working on multilingual information access, focusing on low-resource languages that have received little attention from researchers, and multimodal information access, enabling search across both text and images. Opining about the future, Professor Lin says, “There’s no doubt that AI will have transformative impact on information access, especially with the advent of large language models such as ChatGPT. These technologies demonstrate incredible potential, but their tendency to hallucinate plausible sounding but wrong information is a serious concern. There’s definitely enough to keep me busy for many more years to come!”