An eye for an AI

When Mengjie (Meng) Zhang embarked on an academic career, his ambition was “to do one thing and to do it well”. The one thing he opted for proved an astute choice in which he has done exceedingly well and to the benefit of us all.

Meng is a Professor of Computer Science at Victoria and a leading international researcher in artificial intelligence (AI), which has “the very cool idea” of mimicking human thinking, ideas, behaviour and learning ability.

Originally from China, Meng has witnessed a rapid rise in interest in the application of AI since he arrived in New Zealand in 2000.

“Ten years ago, AI was not so useful. Now it can increasingly be applied to the real world, in areas ranging from immunoanalysis [laboratory tests that use antibodies or antigens to test for specific molecules] to Antarctic research.

“Artificial intelligence is still seen as a hard area to work in, but I tell my students that anything new—data mining, big data, data science, cybersecurity or the internet of things—needs AI techniques.”

Victoria is a recognised hub for AI research, with a close-knit team of collaborators that attracts top researchers and PhD students from all over the world.

Meng is a member of the University’s Artificial Intelligence Group (a loose affiliation of staff spread across the School of Biological Sciences, the School of Engineering and Computer Science, and the School of Mathematics and Statistics) and heads the multidisciplinary Evolutionary Computation Research Group crossing computer science, software engineering, electronic engineering, statistics and biology.

Evolutionary computation is a sub-area of AI based on the theories of biological evolution, including evolutionary algorithms and swarm intelligence, and the group is in the top five internationally in terms of representation in major journals and publications.

“Computer hardware advances, the internet and new techniques have made it possible to solve things we couldn’t have begun to solve 10 years ago,” says Meng.