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U of T's Geoffrey Hinton: Toronto Life looks at the man behind the machines

U of T researcher Geoffrey Hinton is sometimes referred to as the "godfather" of deep learning, a branch of AI that seeks to mimic how the human brain works (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Geoffrey Hinton, by now, needs little introduction – which is presumably why a Toronto Life profile of the pioneering University of Toronto artificial intelligence researcher seeks to delve deeper into the man behind the machines.

The profile, in this week’s issue, offers an intimate look into the life of the “godfather” of deep learning, a branch of AI that seeks to mimic how the human brain works.   

“The brain has got to work somehow and it sure as hell doesn’t work by someone writing programs and sticking them in there,” Hinton, a U of T University Professor Emeritus, tells the magazine.

It sounds sensible enough. But it was a view that, for decades, put Hinton at the fringe of the research establishment. That is, until about eight years ago when the neural nets designed by Hinton and his students began outperforming existing AI technologies.

Now Hinton, who also works for Google, and many of his students are among the most sought-after minds in Silicon Valley. 

Hinton’s current place at the top of his field has been a lifetime in the making. The article traces the British-born scientist’s rise from the moment his intellectual curiosity piqued (he was riding a bus with his mother when he puzzled over a penny that appeared to slide up an upholstered seat) to his decision to leave the United States for Canada and U of T (most AI research south of the border was being funded by the military).  

The profile also explores Hinton’s many personal challenges. That includes a back problem that prevents him from sitting and makes international travel a week-long affair, the tragic loss of his first wife to ovarian cancer and the possibility his second wife may meet a similar fate. 

While the article ends with Hinton’s thoughts on the risks posed by intelligent machines – he’s not terribly worried, though he has signed a ban on “lethal autonomous weapons” – it’s his earlier words about his personal life that leave the biggest impression. 

“I would really like it if you would include in the story the idea that I’ve been able to continue doing my work for the past two and a half years because my wife has had such a positive attitude about her cancer,” he asks the author at one point. “Thank you very much.”

Read the full profile in Toronto Life