The 99 AI Challenge

While artificial intelligence (AI) feels relatively new, it is quickly reshaping our work and our world. However, most of us don’t understand either the technology itself or its potential impact. In 2019-2020, the University of Toronto Libraries offered an opportunity to change this with The 99, an AI challenge for the U of T community.

We selected 99 participants from over 550 applicants: 55 students, 15 faculty members, 15 staff, and 14 community members across campuses and faculties. Because AI is traditionally less accessible to members of marginalized groups, we built a diverse cohort of participants self-identifying as members of the following groups: 67% female or non-binary, 47% racialized/persons of colour, 21% LGBTQ, 6% Indigenous/Aboriginal, and 4% persons with disabilities.

The project consisted of two main phases, supported by Slack discussions and feedback surveys: completion of a highly-regarded online course exploring the basics of AI and six presentations from U of T faculty subject experts with active group discussions and moderated by a UTL librarian on the admin team. Over half (50) of the participants met all milestones and graduated from the program.

Expert speaker series

September 2019
Topic: AI and Migration: Human Rights Implications of New Technologies
Petra Molnar, Acting Director, International Human Rights Program, Faculty of Law

October 2019
Topic: The Ethics of AI
Markus Dubber, Interdisciplinary Centre for Ethics; Professor, Faculty of Law & Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies

November 2019
Topic: Health Disparities and AI: Challenges and Perspectives
Shalmali Joshi, Postdoctoral Fellow, Vector Institute

January 2020
Topic: The Use of AI in Art
David Rokeby, Head, BMO Lab for Creative Research in the Arts, Performance, Emerging Technologies and AI

February 2020
Topic: Digital Redlining: Machine Learning and Social Bias
Brian Harrington, Associate Professor, Computer and Mathematical Sciences, UTSC

March 2020
Topic: Panel: Women in AI
Helen Kontozopoulos, ODAIA; Patricia Thaine, Private AI; Serena McDonnell, Delphia


This challenge was a pilot project designed to educate and engage non-technical experts: it gave access to a network of knowledge and perspectives on this pertinent and exciting area.

By participating, participants could:

  • Develop knowledge of AI and its related fields, its philosophy, applications, functionality, and societal implications
  • Demonstrate new technological awareness and understanding of AI trends and innovations
  • Think critically and consider alternative perspectives and solutions regarding emerging technologies and their applications
  • Apply new information, concepts, and experiences to your life and society at large

Significant outcomes and accomplishments included:

  •     High overall satisfaction rating from participants (8.5/10)
  •     Strong indications of increased understanding of AI and development of critical thinking
  •     90% of participants indicated their understanding increased
  •     Participants noted “AI overall has become less of a black box” and that they have “come to appreciate AI’s benefits and biases”
  •     Participants discussed AI concerns intelligently and moved discussions forward
  •     Cross-disciplinary interactions and perspectives were appreciated by participants
  •     Participants incorporated AI into their teaching and research, and sought additional learning opportunities

Participants who completed all the program milestones were entered to win one of five draw prizes.

Degree-seeking student participants could also enroll in a Co-curricular Record for completing the challenge.

There was no cost for this program.


Applications ran from May 21 to June 14, 2019. Successful applicants will be notified by the end of June. Phase 1 ran through July to mid-August 2019 and Phase 2 ran from September through March 2020. A graduation celebration schedule for Spring 2020 .

Participants spent approximately 20 hours of virtual learning during July and August 2019 (Phase 1), plus approximately 20 hours of in-person and online participation over the 2019-2020 academic year (Phase 2). Participants were required to attend a minimum 4 of the 6 in-person conversations throughout Phase 2, and completed reflections and feedback surveys at milestones through the year.

Applicants are advised that this is a pilot program, and that their data will be collected for reporting purposes internal to the University of Toronto. The pilot organizers may reach out to participants to gain consent to use collected data for secondary research purposes, and that their consent can be withdrawn at any time. Any opt-out from research will not prejudice or impact an individual’s continued participation in or access to the program.

Learn about U of T Libraries online privacy and data collection