MIE Grads to Watch: Students use AI to invent a novel way to recommend books


June 14, 2018 – On June 19, MIE faculty and staff are proud to see a new crop of students receive their degrees at Convocation Hall. As these newest engineering alumni go on to contribute to our society in a myriad of ways, here are the stories of just some of the many promising students who will be graduating this month from MIE.

Fourth-year industrial engineering students Spencer Canner, Oghosa Igbinakenzua and Aadil Sookia have created a website and algorithm to help guide readers’ discovery of books. Their website, Newvella, is a novel approach to artificial intelligence and machine learning – comprehensively automating personalized recommendations of books based on a reader’s personal taste in genres.

Though the recommendation tool may sound similar to algorithms behind Netflix or Spotify, the group – who originally developed this tool as part of MIE’s Capstone course, under the supervision of Professor Scott Sanner – has actually taken the idea of user recommendations a step further.

“If you watch The Office on Netflix, the system will say, ‘here is a list of similar shows to it.’ What we want to do is have a system that really learns your tastes,” explains Sookia. “If you watch The Office and The Walking Dead but you don’t like Suits, there are specific recommendations to you, as opposed to if you watched The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine but you don’t like Parks and Recreation.”

The result is a more diversified, and yet better contextualized user recommendations. When a user visits Newvella, they’ll be asked to select their favourite genres. From there, they are given a series of books from each genre to indicate whether they like or dislike them. Based on this information, the system filters through a database of more than 1,500 books to then present to the reader a set of personalized recommendations, clustered in genres and cross-sections of genres:

“Machine learning tends to rely on the algorithm – the machine side – in order to make accurate recommendations. But there hasn’t been much focus on how humans interact with that system,” said Igbinakenzua

“That’s where the industrial engineering part comes in to play,” added Canner. “Most recommendations are shown in lists or grids, and that’s overwhelming for the user. Think of Netflix, and how many suggestions they give you based on what you’ve watched – it’s a lot. What they are lacking is the user interaction part, which is Newvella’s area of focus.”

Although the students are graduating on June 19 and beginning new jobs – Canner at Shopify, Igbinakenzua at Deloitte, while Sookia is moving to Seattle to work at Zillow – that won’t mean Newvella is coming to an end. The group hopes to continue improving Newvella in their time off and plan to license their platform. In the next few years, they hope to see their algorithm used in movie theatres, public libraries and on video game platforms.

Convocation Q&A with Spencer Canner (SC), Oghosa Igbinakenzua (OI) and Aadil Sookia (AS)

How does it feel to now be a part of the MIE alumni community?

AS: There have been so many amazing graduates from this program. I feel like I’ll always be an ambassador for industrial engineering at U of T. I think we’re really at the cutting edge here, and I’m really proud to be part of this and to be a part of the rich history here.

What have been the highlights of your academic career at MIE?

SC, OI and AS, in unison: Capstone. [The group won first place and The Peri Family Industrial Engineering Design Award at the MIE Capstone Showcase]

Describe your MIE student experience in one word.

AS: Empowering.

OI: Enlightening.

SC: Rewarding.

What do you hope to accomplish in your engineering careers over the next 10 years?

AS: I’m really interested in youth development and leadership. I’m really interested in creating a space that allows youth to find the leader within them, and enable them to do the best that they can. I hope to be a mentor within the workplace but also within my community.

OI: I know that I want to be contributing to Nigeria and Africa’s growth, whether it’s education or infrastructure. If I can gain significant knowledge through my work and experiences over the next 10 years, I would want it to be applied to the development of something great there.

SC: Having been working in the tech industry, I’ve seen firsthand all these new technologies coming out. And at Shopify right now, I had the chance to sit down with a 67-year-old, and they couldn’t stop talking about how easy it is to use and how it allows them to do so much. I envision myself working to make technologies accessible to everybody. As tech advances, I want to see it advancing towards accessibility, to make sure that no one is left behind.

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