University of Toronto partners with Naver, Wattpad on AI research

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The University of Toronto and Naver Corp. — and its subsidiary Wattpad — will partner on artificial intelligence (AI) research to utilise technology to promote human creativity.

Naver will collaborate with the University of Toronto on four research initiatives, from human-computer interface to natural language processing, guided by a collaboration framework agreement. Two of the projects will be undertaken in collaboration with Wattpad, a digital storytelling platform started by University of Toronto alumni and acquired by Naver in early 2021.

The five-year research collaboration was recently announced during a trip to South Korea by senior executives from the University of Toronto’s Office of the Vice-President, International announced the five-year research collaboration during a trip to South Korea.

University of Toronto’s associate vice president, international partnerships Alex Mihailidis said the collaboration with Naver and Wattpad is a groundbreaking corporate collaboration.

“It allows us to pair the support of a Toronto-based business in Wattpad with the global ambitions of their corporate parent, Naver, all while combining two of U of T’s greatest strengths in computing: artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction,” Mihailidis stated.

Mihailidis added that the collaboration is multidisciplinary, multi-party, and multi-year. He said it demonstrates the value of complete expertise, which the University of Toronto is well-positioned to provide.

The research will be led by Anastasia Kuzminykh and Tony Tang of the Faculty of Information and Daniel Wigdor, Fanny Chevalier, Frank Rudzicz, and Gerald Penn of the computer science department in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Naver, one of the biggest companies in South Korea and a global leader in AI research and development, will fund the project.

The projects will deal with one of the most challenging problems in the field: how to build a robust human-computer dialogue architecture and harness the power of social reading and writing technologies while making sure that diversity and fairness are incorporated into AI text recommendations.

“AI is a powerful technology, but its true value is only realized when paired with world-class human-computer interfaces. We are excited to be working with some of the foremost experts in these topics through the partnership with U of T,” Naver AI Lab head Jung-Woo Ha said.

The announcement follows South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s recent trip to the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, where he met with President Meric Gertler and spoke with experts and leaders in the field, including University Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hinton, about the development and applications of AI.

The event featured lectures on AI research routes and partnerships by South Korean IT businesses such as Naver.

According to Kuzminykh, her research with Naver will look at how various facets of “conversational architecture,” or the form and flow of conversation, influence how individuals perceive and engage with conversational “agents”, such as chatbots and virtual assistants.

“The lack of understanding of these effects, (which are) critical for informing the agent’s speech synthesis, leads to shortcomings in the current human-agent interaction design,” Kuzminykh said.

She observed that the present conversational user interfaces are dominated by transactional transactions that deliver information rather than drawn-out back-and-forth conversations.

“If agents are truly to be communication partners to human users and to provide meaningful input, their operations should support extended conversations, augmenting transactional interactions with social ones used to establish and maintain social relationships,” Kuzminykh stated.

Meanwhile, Rudzicz said that his study with Wattpad will focus on disentangling linguistic information in modern language models to better understand texts’ syntactic, semantic, and rhetorical features within neural networks.

“This will be applied to identify sources of bias in text and in the model, towards more fair machine learning,” Rudzicz stated.

Naver operates many businesses and services, including its eponymous search engine, the Line instant messaging app, the Naver Clova interactive AI engine, and the Webtoon digital comics platform.

Naver paid $600 million US for Wattpad, which was created by University of Toronto grads Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen, in early 2021. Lau told the University of Toronto News at the time that the opportunity to tap into Webtoon’s digital comics audience was a primary motivator behind the acquisition, which he claimed would help take Wattpad “to the next level.”

“We are very excited to partner closely with both U of T and Naver in developing research that will help us provide more innovative experiences to our users,” said Brendan Cone, Wattpad’s head of engineering. “Between Wattpad’s content platform, with millions of stories from diverse voices around the world, Naver’s impressive hyperscale AI technology, and U of T’s comprehensive AI expertise, we hope to help our users find and create more of the content they love.”

According to Patrycja Thompson, U of T’s partnerships officer and the lead on the Naver relationship, the partnership will provide considerable training opportunities for graduate and postdoctoral students.

“We hope that both Naver and Wattpad see this partnership as a launchpad to a long-term relationship with the university and will continue to leverage U of T innovations to further support their missions to empower human creativity,” Thompson added.


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