AI pioneers take home coveted A.M. Turing Award

A trio of scientists who laid the groundwork for AI research in the '80s have been named the winners of the 2018 Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award, commonly referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Computing.”

Though their research was initially met with skepticism, Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun’s work has been elevated in recent years by increased access to large datasets and powerful graphics processing unit computers, according to an ACM release.

Hinton, now vice president and an engineering fellow at Google, has been advocating for machine learning since the early 1980s, when he began studying human brain functions to get an idea of how machine learning systems might be built. His curiosity eventually led to the development of neural networks, and Hinton, LeCun and Bengio spent the next 30 years working together and independently to advance the AI platform.

“Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” ACM President Cherri M. Pancake said in the release. “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.”

Hinton is best-known for his work on the backpropagation algorithm, invention of Boltzmann Machines and improvements to convolutional neural networks. LeCun, now the VP and chief AI scientist for Facebook, was also lauded for his research on backpropagation and convolutional neural networks, and was credited with developing a broader vision for neural networks as a computational model.

Bengio’s papers on generative deep learning “spawned a revolution in computer vision and computer graphics,” according to the release, and he was also heavily involved with probabilistic models of sequences and generative adversarial networks. Today, he’s a professor at the University of Montreal and the scientific director of Mila, Quebec’s AI institute.

The A.M. Turing Award, named for the famed British mathematician Alan M. Turing, will be formally presented to the scientists at the ACM’s annual awards banquet this June in San Francisco. The accolade comes with a $1 million grand prize, which is financed by Google.

“Deep neural networks are responsible for some of the greatest advances in modern computer science, helping make substantial progress on long-standing problems in computer vision, speech recognition and natural language understanding,” Jeff Dean, the senior VP of Google AI, said in the release. “At the heart of this progress are fundamental techniques developed starting more than 30 years ago by this year’s Turing Award winners.”