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Past Winner
1998 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Jonathan Schaeffer

Computer Science

University of Alberta

Dr. Thomas A. Brzustowski, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), today announced that University of Alberta computer scientist Jonathan Schaeffer has been awarded one of the country's top research awards - a 1998 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship.

"Dr. Schaeffer's invention of the checker-playing program Chinook was a milestone in artificial intelligence and a Canadian triumph," said Dr. Brzustowski. "With modest resources, he created the first program to defeat the human world champion in a non trivial game - an achievement that rivals the impact of IBM Deep Blue's later defeat of Garry Kasparov. But the greatest part of that achievement, of course, is what was learned in the process."

The study of games has been at the centre of artificial intelligence research since the field came into existence in the 1950s, and has become a major tool helping computers solve increasingly difficult and complex problems. According to US computer scientist Dr. Richard E. Korf, games provide such a fertile and profound laboratory for the study of intelligent behaviour, because they are simpler than many real-world problems and the available information, the available actions, their outcomes, and the overall goals are well-defined. This fundamental simplification, says Dr. Korf, is the key to progress in most areas of science and engineering.

In adding his congratulations, Dr. Ron Duhamel, Secretary of State (Science, Research and Development), said, "Dr. Schaeffer's exceptional research, along with that of other young university researchers like him, creates a better future for all Canadians. Research and innovation are key to leading Canada into the new millenium."

Dr. Schaeffer's reputation as one of the most successful researchers in the world is well deserved. His early successes in computer game playing came in the mid-1980s, when his chess program Phoenix tied for first place in the World Computer Chess Championships. He is widely recognized for pioneering the use of parallel computing in games. In addition, he has made significant contributions to the theory of search. Algorithms based on his research can be used to simplify very complicated sets of research instructions and arrive at answers. This advance has been widely applied both in artificial intelligence research and computer software. In 1996, he published One Jump Ahead a popular book on his quest to build his historic checker-playing program.

The Steacie Fellowship will permit him to turn his efforts to poker and Sokoban - two games largely ignored by artificial intelligence researchers but which offer the tantalising prospect of insight into problems of planning, risk and uncertainty. Poker with its elements of hidden information, multiple opponents, risk management (betting), deception (bluffing), and opponent modelling seems particularly promising.

The NSERC fellowship is one of only four awarded each year. The honour is given to university researchers who are capturing international attention for outstanding scientific or engineering achievement. NSERC will provide the University of Alberta with the full amount of Dr. Schaeffer's salary for up to two years. The fellowship will free him to pursue his innovative research full-time, as well as obtain significant new research funding from NSERC.

The three other 1998 Steacie fellows are Sara Iverson, Dept. of Biology, Dalhousie University; Louis Taillefer, Dept. of Physics, McGill University; and Michael Ward, Dept. of Mathematics, University of British Columbia.

The E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships will be presented by His Excellency The Right Honourable Roméo LeBlanc, Governor General of Canada, in a ceremony at Rideau Hall, Ottawa, on April 27.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada is the national instrument for making strategic investments in Canada's capability in science and technology. NSERC supports both basic university research through research grants and project research through partnerships of universities with industry. NSERC also supports the advanced training of highly qualified people in both areas.