Geoffrey Hinton: The Story of the British “Godfather of AI” – who hasn’t sat down since 2005 | Science & Tech News
“I last sat down in 2005,” says Geoffrey Hinton, “and it was a mistake.”
The 73-year-old British computer scientist has spent his entire career advancing the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and doing almost all of his work standing up, having suffered back injuries as a teenager.
By the time he was 50, Mr. Hinton’s back problems were so severe that he decided to simply stop sitting. Nowadays, when he drives his car, he lies stretched out in the back seat – and he eats “like a monk at the altar” by kneeling on a foam cushion in front of the table.
“If you let it control your life completely, you won’t have any problems,” he told Cade Metz, a New York Times journalist who extensively described his life in the book Genius Makers.
If you let it control your life completely, it won’t give you any problems.
“He has this incredible sense of humor,” Metz told Sky News. “If you ask him about his back problem, he calls it ‘a long-standing problem’,” added Metz.
Genius Makers, subtitled “The Outsiders AI Was Taken To” Google, Facebook and the world, “follows Mr. Hinton and a number of other men who pioneered the field since it was considered a dead end for computer scientists.
Mr. Hinton is the great-grandson of George Boole – the mathematician who invented Boolean algebra and laid the foundation for the entire information age – and the son of a distinguished scientist and member of the Royal Society, whom he disappointed by choosing not to study Entomology.
Instead, after graduating from Cambridge University in 1970 with a BA in Experimental Psychology, Mr. Hinton joined the Graduate School in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh.
In Scotland, he advocated the idea of a neural network, which Metz Sky News described as “an idea that almost nobody on earth believed in at the time – it was pretty much a dead idea even among AI researchers”.
But he would continue to make important contributions to both the idea and the realm of AI in general, removing it from the relatively hypothetical and underfunded world of academic computer science – unless the researchers wanted to accept grants from the US Department of Defense, the Mr. Hinton not – in industry.
Part of the fun of writing the book was following Mr. Hinton, “who shows up like Forrest Gump in all these important places,” said Metz. Although the idea of a neural network existed before Mr. Hinton, his work in the 1970s helped establish that missing piece – along with David Rumelhart and Ronald Williams – as backpropagation.
“Others had similar ideas, but this paper really gave neural networks the missing math piece they needed to work on the scale they are now working on,” explained Metz.
“He was there at that moment and then actively building these systems that worked first in speech recognition and then in image recognition in a very real way. These were two very important moments in the advancement of not only this technology but also AI as a whole as practiced today.
“One of the reasons it got into the industry is because he made it happen. He went to Microsoftand then he went to google and those are two more really important moments and they essentially come from the key person. “
Mr. Hinton was instrumental in attracting the attention of the world’s largest technology companies. After Chinese tech giant Baidu offered to pay them $ 12 million (£ 8.6 million) for a few years of work, it proposed holding an auction to invite some other bidders.
“I was trying to get him to tell me who these companies are that are bidding for him,” said Metz of his efforts to “compile the story of this auction when he auctioned himself off to all of these companies.”
“And he said, ‘Well, I signed NDAs with Google, Microsoft, and Baidu that said I would never talk about it.'”
In the end, when the bids between Google and Baidu reached $ 44 million (£ 31 million), Mr. Hinton intervened and sold his company to the American firm. Finding the right place to do his research was more important than the extra money.
Mr Metz said, “There were places in his career where people around him thought AI was showing great promise and then there were other times where people around him thought it was a really bad idea and independently of the kind of skepticism surrounding him continued to work on it.
“And that’s the core of so many great stories, someone who believes in something and knows there are promises there, and who is willing to work on it even in the face of enormous skepticism.”
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