Alfred Deakin Professor Svetha Venkatesh

Co-Director, The Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute (A²I²)

For one of the top 15 women in the world in artificial intelligence*, a passion for solving problems has led to exploring frontiers in medicine, materials and mental health.

A pattern of research

A pioneer in the field of pattern recognition, Alfred Deakin Professor Svetha Venkatesh, Co-Director of Deakin University’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute (A²I²), is globally renowned for accelerating scientific innovation, developing new technology that recognises patterns in big data and a type of artificial intelligence (AI) known as machine learning.

Her work is focused on developing cutting-edge solutions to problems of societal importance in critical areas like health, security, manufacturing and aged care, and has resulted in the ability to detect potential security threats in large data sets; a health analytics program that helps doctors predict suicide risk; and an early intervention system for children with autism.

Prof. Venkatesh’s work has been recognised with numerous accolades, the most recent being her election as a 2021 Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

“Devising ways to understand how patterns work and how they can be interrogated for the broadest number of possible purposes is my passion,” she says. “I love to identify unsolved problems and construct rigorous computational models, theory and algorithms to solve them.

“Over the years, pattern recognition has slowly grown into more specialised machine learning and now advances are being made in the field of AI. So I have grown with this field.”

Collaborating on creative solutions

Prof. Venkatesh joined Deakin in 2012, when she was invited to head up the Pattern Recognition and Data Analytics (PRaDA) Strategic Research Centre. In 2019, the PRaDA team combined with Professor Kon Mouzakis’ team at the Deakin Software and Technology Innovation Laboratory (DSTIL) to form A²I², with research focused on human/computer interaction, interface design and complex decision support systems.

“At A²I² we collaborate with many disciplines, and solve problems at the nexus of computer science and the other disciplines. This has allowed us to do really innovative work. I’m deeply grateful to a wonderful team of people who I have worked with over the years who have made this possible.”

Disruptive technology

In 2017, Prof. Venkatesh became Deakin’s third Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellow, securing five years of funding to extend her team’s work.

“The ARC Laureate Fellowship allows us to undertake significant scientific and translational research to advance both the theory and practice of pattern recognition through machine learning algorithms,” she says.

“We’ve recently embarked on accelerating the very process of experimental design itself, allowing faster design of novel materials and processes. This includes the design of new aluminium alloys and alloys with special properties.

“This technology will disrupt current experimental methods, providing a new framework to guide humans through experimental complexity. It will transform the way complex experimental explorations can be done and turbocharge innovation in many different fields.”

*Nesta UK Innovation firm (2019).

Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute A²I²

We sat down with Svetha to find out what A²I² does, the main projects the institute is working on, the areas of study for Higher degree by Research and what the institute hopes to achieve.

About A²I²

What is the Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute and what inspired you to become its Director?

The Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute (A²I²) explores new frontiers in AI research and transforms industries and improves lives by developing and implementing safe, effective uses of AI. The Institute has a mission to build AI systems that benefit Australian industries and society, including critical areas such as health, security, manufacturing and aged care.

We pioneer methods and approaches for AI and machine learning problems with high potential impact. Our interests cover machine learning, AI, reinforcement learning, deep learning, optimisation, and software engineering.

We’re a unique institute in that we choose to take on problems that not only help solve important societal problems, but also push the boundaries of machine learning.

A²I² comprises more than 50 fundamental machine learning and AI specialists, around 30 PhD students, and more than 50 software engineers who translate ideas into prototypes. It is this unique combination of skills that makes the Institute a wonderful place to be in today.

What distinguishes A²I² from its competitors? What do you perceive as its strengths?

Launched in January 2019, A²I² was formed by merging two very successful, established groups at Deakin. The Pattern Recognition and Data Analytics (PRaDA) group was recognised internationally for our ground-breaking work in machine learning and pattern recognition. Similarly, Deakin’s Software and Technology Innovation Laboratory (DSTIL) had a national reputation for transforming complex ideas into user-friendly software systems, including mobile and web applications.

Combining the multi-disciplinary expertise of these two groups has made A²I² unique in Australia and the ideal partner for industry, government and the community to take full advantage of our capability. No other Australian research institute brings this breadth of world-class expertise to solving challenges through AI.

How do you see A²I² contributing to Deakin's strategic priorities? What are your priorities for the Institute? 

At A²I², we have the critical mass of AI expertise to achieve the innovation and commercialisation outcomes at the heart of Deakin’s strategic research agenda and we reflect Deakin’s strategic priorities on many levels. Deakin seeks to be a leader in digital capability and A²I² is a showpiece for Deakin in this regard. We are undertaking globally-significant discovery research that will benefit society through new services, products, policies and capabilities.

We are thought leaders, providing solutions across four of Deakin’s strategic research themes. In health, we are creating new ways to improve the quality of life for individuals – from improving mental health diagnosis and treatment, to enabling the elderly to stay safely at home for longer through smart sensing technology.

Finding ways to improve security and defence is another key Deakin research priority. In a new project, one of our research teams is building understanding of Trojan AI, developing a scanner that will check for Trojan backdoors before an AI system is deployed. This will prevent cyber-attack through backdoors installed in AI systems during training time, an emerging form of cybercrime.

We are advancing society and culture through applications such as the award-winning TOBY Playpad and our social media monitoring research, which is providing new ways to understand human behaviour.

Finally, but most importantly, we’re exploring the relationship between humans and machines, and machine autonomy. Asking questions about the role of AI in our world is fundamental to the future of society and is central to our activities at A²I².

A²I² Projects

What are some of the major projects A²I² is working on?

In a $5 million joint project with the Black Dog Institute, funded by the Medical Research Future Fund, we are pioneering a world-first approach to mental health treatment. Known as adaptive experimental design, the approach has the potential to personalise health treatment in a way never before achieved and can fast-track clinical trials and other experiments across the medical field and beyond. The three-year trial is seeking to optimise treatment for people experiencing psychological distress and the findings will allow more personalised treatments for individuals experiencing psychological distress in the future.

This is transformative medical research. With several successful projects behind it, it is a further test case of adaptive experimental design. Right now, it’s focussed on treating psychological distress, but in a few years its use of game-changing applied AI technologies is likely to improve the ways medical professionals prevent, diagnose and treat a wide range of health conditions, to achieve significant health benefits for Australians and globally.

Higher Degree by Research

What disciplines are you looking for in your HDR students and how can prospective students engage with A²I²?

We are looking for self-motivated students who have a passion for unlocking intelligence and developing computational methods to create safe artificial agents that learn, plan, reason, communicate and socialise. Students who are thriving at A²I² typically have a strong background in mathematics and statistics, and they are skilled in programming.

We currently have nearly 30 PhD students working with the Institute on different projects. They work alongside internationally recognised researchers with expertise in the areas of machine learning, pattern recognition, artificial intelligence and computer vision. They also have the chance to share their research interest in our weekly reading groups.

We offer scholarships for prospective PhD students through the Deakin University Higher Degree by Research (HDR) program. We also consider self-funded PhD applicants.

Interested applicants should email an EOI and attach a resume to Trang Tran (A²I² HDR Support Coordinator). For more information contact: Trang Tran.

What advice can you provide to a prospective student looking to work in your field?

AI is a very fast-changing, fascinating field. We reinvent ourselves on a daily basis. Keep learning. Be curious.

The future of A²I²  

What do you think will be some of the most exciting or ground-breaking uses of A²I²’s research in 10-20 years’ time?

AI, I would say, is very much in its infancy. The part of AI that we have solved is the initial part, where you can take a signal and extract patterns. What we haven’t done yet is build useful reasoning or planning systems and embed them in context. In fact, the best algorithms we have can’t even learn as well as a small child, so we have a long way to go.

I think the vision for A²I² is to continue to produce these cutting-edge machine learning and AI technologies, translate them into products that have societal impact and, most importantly, engage with the community so that we produce research that fills a real need in society.

One of the areas that is very important to us as we develop AI is the ability to provide assurance to humans regarding what is inside the AI. We need to be able to explain our algorithms to the people who deploy them. To help address this, we have invented a new area called algorithmic assurance, where you have algorithms watching other algorithms to see if the algorithms are functioning as they should.

AI has opened up an important frontier where the community has to decide how and when to share autonomy with machines. A²I² wants to be part of this conversation. What kind of society do we want to have, and what is the role that AI will play in it? We don’t want it to be a runaway technology, we want it to be the Australian AI version – a version that we’re happy to have in our communities and that will advance our futures.