The prestigious Thamsanqa W. Kambule Award for the best doctoral dissertation in the computational and statistical sciences at an African university was awarded to Dr Arnu Pretorius from Stellenbosch University.
The award was announced during the Deep Learning Indaba held in Accra, Ghana, from 3 to 9 September 2023. The award, held in honour of one of South Africa's foremost mathematicians and teachers Dr Thamsanqu W. Kambule, recognises excellence in research and writing by doctoral candidates at African universities in any area of computational and statistical sciences. The Deep Learning Indaba is an organisation, established in 2017, to strengthen machine learning and artificial intelligence in Africa.
Dr Pretorius's dissertation, titled “On noise regularised neural networks: initiation, learning and inference", focuses on the mathematical underpinning of how neural networks behave when “noise" is introduced into the learning process. His supervisors were Prof. Steve Kroon from SU's Computer Science Division and Prof. Herman Kamper from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
In his acceptance speech, Dr Pretorius thanked his supervisors for their in-depth and valuable feedback on his thesis. He also acknowledged the role that the first Deep Learning Indaba at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2017 made on his mindset when he started out with his doctoral research.
“At the 2017 Deep Learning Indaba, I was blown away by the quality of the work presented at the poster session, and the fact that some researchers had work presented at top AI venues such as the International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML). At the time, I didn't think this was possible," he said.
The ICML is regarded as the premier gathering of professionals dedicated to the advancement of machine learning, one of the branches of artificial intelligence.
In 2018, Dr Pretorius had the opportunity to present his work at the ICML in Stockholm, supported by a Google Travel and Conference Grant. At the time, there were only a handful of African researchers present.
At the next Deep Learning Indaba at Stellenbosch University in 2018, Dr Pretorius presented his work at the poster session. There he met Karim Beguir, co-founder and CEO of InstaDeep. Beguir is a Google for Startups Mentor with a passion for teaching and using applied mathematics to democratise Artificial Intelligence and make it accessible to a wide audience. Based on this interaction, Dr Pretorius was given the opportunity to join InstaDeep and set up an office in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2020.
Dr Pretorius is also an extraordinary senior lecturer in SU's Applied Mathematics Division, where he is involved with lecturing for the MSc programme in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. This is a one-year structured master's programme at SU, designed for students with a strong mathematical and computational background.