The ‘Godfathers of AI’ receive this year's Turing Award

Their work enabled huge breakthroughs in tasks like computer vision and speech recognition

The 2018 Turing Award, also known as the “Nobel Prize of computing,” has been given to a trio of researchers who laid the foundations for the current boom in artificial intelligence (AI). Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton, and Yann LeCun - sometimes called the ‘godfathers of AI’ - have been recognised with the $1m annual prize for their work developing the AI subfield of deep learning.

The trio’s journey is a parable of scientific grit and case study in the economic value of new forms of computing. Through decades of careful research out of the limelight, they transformed an old-fashioned, marginalised idea into the hottest in computer science. Now, the technology they championed in the 1990s and 2000s is central to every large tech company’s strategy for the future. It’s how software in testing at Google reads medical scans, Tesla’s Autopilot reads road markings, and Facebook automatically removes some hate speech. And their achievements are particularly notable as they kept the faith in artificial intelligence at a time when the technology’s prospects were dismal.

"All three of us got into this field not just because we want to build intelligent machines, but also because we just wanted to understand intelligence — and that includes human intelligence. We’re looking for underlying principles to intelligence and learning, and through the construction of intelligent machines, to understand ourselves," LeCun said in a blog post after the win:

He is currently Facebook’s chief AI scientist and a professor at NYU. In the meantime Hinton splits his time between Google and the University of Toronto and Bengio is a professor at the University of Montreal and started an AI company called Element AI.

The Turing Award is bestowed annually by the New York-based Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). First awarded in 1966, the prize is named after the British mathematician and Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing, who helped lay the foundations for computer science. Turing is also known for proposing the Turing test as a way to evaluate whether an artificially intelligent system is doing something that is genuinely indistinguishable from human thought. Most experts say that such a system remains a long way off, but learning algorithms based on the work of this year’s prize winners have proved remarkably effective at mastering complex tasks without thinking.

"Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society. The growth of and interest in AI is due, in no small part, to the recent advances in deep learning for which Bengio, Hinton and LeCun laid the foundation. These technologies are used by billions of people. Anyone who has a smartphone in their pocket can tangibly experience advances in natural language processing and computer vision that were not possible just 10 years ago. In addition to the products we use every day, new advances in deep learning have given scientists powerful new tools — in areas ranging from medicine, to astronomy, to materials science," the ACM said in a statement on the occasion.

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