Christopher Beckham never imagined his work on one of the oldest machine learning systems at the University of Waikato would find him at one of the largest Artificial Intelligence (AI) research institutes in the world.
While writing software for WEKA (Waikato Environment for Knowledge Analysis), Christopher was recruited by Christopher Pal, a professor on sabbatical from Polytechnique Montréal and MILA - a research institute in AI in Montréal, founded by Yoshua Bengio, one of the ‘godfathers’ of ‘deep learning’, to continue his studies.
The straight-A student jumped at the opportunity and upon graduating with a Bachelor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences with Honours (BCMS(Hons)) in 2016, majoring in Computer Science and specialising in Artificial Intelligence, Christopher landed in one of Canada’s largest cities on Boxing Day.
He went on to get his master’s and is now in his third year as a PhD candidate, working on various topics in fundamental research in AI, while working part-time at ServiceNow Research.
“In 2019, ServiceNow had a commercial interest in a piece of software I wrote for WEKA and ended up buying a sub-license for it since they were interested in using it in their software,” Christopher says.
“The fact that I ended up working at this company was purely coincidental, so I thought that was quite fascinating.”
Growing up in the rural town of Peria, 28km east of Kaitaia, Christopher has been “tinkering” with computers for as long as he can remember.
Attending a University of Waikato Open Day with his Taipa Area School classmates was a great opportunity to see the campus, he remembers.
“The University sits on the edge of Hamilton, and Hamilton itself is not a big city. It's not such a drastic transition from where I grew up, as opposed to moving to a really big city like Auckland.
“You can live on campus or just across the road if flatting. You don’t need to worry about public transport, it’s very convenient.”
Christopher moved into Bryant Hall and made friends for life.
“I met other computer science guys and we struck a balance between nerd and social.
“My main reason for going to Waikato was mainly due to the economic savings and because I heard good things about the Computer Science department.”
Christopher was awarded 12 scholarships throughout his time at the University, which helped finance his studies. These included the University of Waikato Taught Postgraduate Scholarship ($6000), LIC Patrick Shannon Scholarship ($5000), 2degrees ICT scholarship ($5000), Vice Chancellors’ Excellence Award for NCEA ($5000) and the Bryant Hall Residential Scholarship ($5000).
Summer Research Scholarships are offered to promising undergraduates, final-year honours and first-year master's degree students. They provide students with opportunities to experience the challenges and rewards of research. Christopher did one every year, saying it was “one of the best highlights of my undergrad”.
Yet, it was the passion, animation and the excitement of professors and lecturers, like Dr Tony Smith and the late Associate Professor Tony McGregor, who had the biggest effect on Christopher.
“Their energy rubs off on you, it’s inspiring. I get all giddy when they get giddy.”
In April 2021, the University launched the AI Institute - Te Ipu o te Mahara - which takes an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to the development of cutting-edge AI research.
The Institute’s goal is to build awareness and expertise across disciplines so it can better leverage AI for the benefit of communities and its team is focused on real-time analytics for big data, machine learning and deep learning. It’s created some of the world’s most popular open-source tools for machine learning.
In Christopher’s words: “AI is magic.”