MIT Jameel Clinic’s Regina Barzilay wins new $1 million prize for artificial intelligence

  • Funded by Squirrel AI, an award from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) will honour Regina Barzilay for work using machine learning to diagnose cancer and develop antibiotics
  • Barzilay is faculty lead for AI at the Jameel Clinic at MIT

Today, the world’s largest artificial intelligence (AI) society - the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) - announced the winner of their new Squirrel AI Award for Artificial Intelligence for the Benefit of Humanity, a brand-new $1 million award given to honour individuals whose work in the field has had a transformative impact on society.

The recipient, Professor Regina Barzilay of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (“Jameel Clinic”), is being recognised for her work developing machine learning models to develop antibiotics and other drugs, and to detect and diagnose breast cancer at early stages. One of the Jameel-Clinic’s most recent efforts is “AI Cures,” a cross-institutional initiative focused on developing affordable COVID-19 antivirals.

“Only world-renowned recognitions such as the Association of Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award, and the Nobel Prize carry monetary rewards at the million-dollar level,” says AAAI’s past-president and awards committee chair Yolanda Gil. “This award aims to be unique in recognizing the positive impact of artificial intelligence for humanity.”

Barzilay has conducted research on a range of topics in computer science, ranging from explainable machine learning to deciphering dead languages. Since surviving breast cancer in 2014, she has increasingly focused her efforts on healthcare. She created algorithms for early breast cancer diagnosis and risk assessment that have been tested at multiple hospitals around the globe, including in Sweden, Taiwan, and at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.

In parallel, she has been working on developing machine learning models for drug discovery: with collaborators she’s created models for selecting molecule candidates for therapeutics that have been able to speed up drug development, and last year helped discover a new antibiotic called Halicin that was shown to be able to kill many species of disease-causing bacteria that are antibiotic-resistant, including the superbug Clostridium difficile (“c-diff”).

“Through my own life experience, I came to realise that we can create technology that can alleviate human suffering and change our understanding of diseases,“ says Barzilay, who is faculty lead for AI at the Jameel Clinic and the Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. “I feel lucky to have found collaborators who share my passion and who have helped me realise this vision.”

Barzilay also serves as a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and is a member of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

“Regina has made truly-changing breakthroughs in imaging breast cancer and predicting the medicinal activity of novel chemicals,” says MIT biology professor Phillip Sharp, a Nobel laureate who serves as chair of the Jameel Clinic’s advisory board and was previously director of both the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Koch Institute. “I am honored to have as a colleague someone who is such a pioneer in using deeply creative machine learning methods to transform the fields of healthcare and biological science.”

Barzilay joined the MIT faculty in 2003 and is also the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant”, the National Science Foundation Career Award, a Microsoft Faculty Fellowship, multiple “best paper” awards in her field, and MIT’s Jamieson Award for excellence in teaching.

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