Over the past 20 years, computers have become so smart that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or automatically seeing their friends tagged on Facebook pictures.
But it took hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun to make those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality. The trio taped into their own brain power to enable machines to learn as human beings, a breakthrough now commonly referred to as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.
On March 27, they rewarded their insights and persistence with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as the Nobel Prize version of the technology industry. It comes with a Google – funded $ 1 million prize, a company in which AI has become part of its DNA.
The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence is likely to play in redefining the human – technology relationship over the coming decades.
“Artificial intelligence is now one of science’s fastest – growing areas and one of society’s most talked – about topics,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Computing Machinery Association, the group behind the Turing Award.
Although they knew each other for more than 30 years, Mr. Bengio, Mr. Hinton and Mr. LeCun worked on technology known as neural networks mostly separately. These are the electronic engines that power tasks like facial recognition and speech recognition, areas where computers have made tremendous progress over the past decade. Such neural networks are also a critical component of robotic systems that automate a wide range, including driving, of other human activities.
They once mocked their peers ‘ belief in the power of neural networks, Mr. Hinton said. There’s no more. He is now working as a vice president and senior fellow at Google, while Mr. LeCun is Facebook’s chief AI scientist. In addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec, Mr. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a professor at the University of Montreal.
“People have been thinking for a long time what we three were doing was nonsense,” Mr. Hinton said in an interview. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing to spend their time on seemingly intelligent people. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if you’re told what’s going on is stupid.”
Now, some people worry about spiraling out of control the results of the researchers ‘ efforts.
While the AI revolution raises hopes that computers will make the lives of most people more comfortable and enjoyable, fears that humanity will eventually live at the mercy of machines are also fuelled.
Mr. Bengio, Mr. Hinton and Mr. LeCun share some of those concerns, in particular the doomsday scenarios that envisage the development of AI technology into weapons systems that wipe out mankind.
But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to provide more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for example, or to detect health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than doctors in humans.