Almost 10 questions with Acceleration Consortium (AC) member Anatole von Lilienfeld


We are excited to welcome AC member Anatole von Lilienfeld to the University of Toronto and the Vector Institute!

Anatole von Lilienfeld has been named the inaugural holder of the Clark Chair in Advanced Materials at the Vector Institute and the University of Toronto (U of T). The Clark Chair is made possible through a generous gift from long-time U of T donor Edmund Clark, with additional support from the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. This generous donation from Clark epitomizes his long-standing commitments to both supporting excellence in teaching and research at U of T and recognizing the potential of AI to transform global society in innumerable ways.

Currently a full professor in the faculty of physics at the University of Vienna, and previously associate and assistant professor of physical chemistry at the University of Basel, von Lilienfeld is an expert in developing and applying machine learning methods that drive the design and discovery of new materials using quantum mechanics, big data, statistical mechanics and computing.

We spoke to him about his research, his teaching philosophies, and his hopes for the future of the field.

Anatole von Lilienfeld (gif)

1. What brought you to the Chemistry department at the University of Toronto?

The remarkable commitment to excellence in AI-based research in the chemical sciences as well as the outstanding and world-renown academic environment at the University of Toronto.

2. What is the focus of your research? How do you hope to change the world?

We work on the development of computational methods for the rapid prediction of relevant properties throughout chemical compound space. We hope to deepen our understanding of the rules that govern the behavior of matter. We expect the kind of software we develop to be crucial for the emergence of automatized chemical experimentation.

3. What motivates your research?

Gaining an improved and quantitative understanding of the chemical sciences still holds much promise to better the life of human mankind in terms of materials, health, and other useful molecular applications. 

"The notion of digitizing chemistry is grand and requires many team-players. The AC is shaping up to become the ideal framework for this effort."  – Anatole von Lilienfeld

4. How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

First I try to truly connect to students as a human. Science is done by and for humans after all. Then, I try to spell out the most remarkable non-obvious technical details so that they can join me in the joy of 'figuring things out’ (as Feynman used to say). And finally, I also try to raise intense awareness about all the things we do not know yet (much more than we do know), i.e. turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns. 

5. What are 3 things that people should know about you?

I like humour, latex, and neck-ties. I also believe in the no-free-lunch theorem.

6. What excites you about being part of the Acceleration Consortium (AC)? 

Activities such as this one have motivated me to come to Toronto: The notion of digitizing chemistry is grand and requires many team-players. The AC is shaping up to become the ideal framework for this effort.

7. Are there any gaps or opportunities in the field that should demand our attention?

While I’m very excited about the scientific progress our community has made, and the continued improvements and integration efforts of computing within the chemical sciences, I do think that there is much more that needs to be done: We are still so far away from the grand vision of autonomous chemistry.

8. What role can the AC and our members (industry, government, academics) play in helping the field evolve in the next 5-10 years? 

I think that we are at the dawn of truly digitizing the chemical sciences. The field is moving so rapidly and with such momentum that I do not dare to speculate about its specifics in the future. I strongly believe that coordinated joint efforts, such as the Acceleration Consortium, will play a crucial role in synchronizing efforts not only at the technical but also at the societal level, thereby enabling the world-wide implementation of an `updated’ version of chemical engineering with unprecedented advantages for humanity at large.

9. What’s something surprising you realized about yourself and the world during the pandemic?

By spending more time at home I learnt to value my family much more, and I was humbled by realizing how hard it can be to still fully apply yourself to work in the absence of team-members and colleagues. In terms of the world I was saddened by the political polarization, and at the same time encouraged by the mutual support and kind interest many took in each other’s well-being.

Learn more about what brought von Lilienfeld to Toronto and the people that made it happen in this story from our friends at the Faculty of Arts & Science at U of T. The AC is based in the Faculty of Arts & Science in partnership with the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, as part of U of T’s Institutional Strategic Initiatives (ISI) program, a framework that enables the development and sustainability of cross-divisional, interdisciplinary collaborative research networks through partnerships with external industry, community, and philanthropic partners.


Acceleration Consortium

This piece was written by a member of the AC team

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