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U of T's Geoffrey Hinton wins Killam Prize

Award recognizes pioneering work in artificial intelligence

University Professor Geoffrey Hinton, one of the world’s leading researchers in machine learning and artificial intelligence, is the winner of one of five 2012 Killam Prizes.

One of Canada’s most prestigious scholarly awards, the Killam Prize recognizes outstanding career achievement by scholars actively engaged in research. It is administered by the Canada Council for the Arts and comes with a $100,000 prize.

Hinton’s research focuses on machine learning – one of the frontiers of modern science – and how machines can recognize patterns in large, complex datasets. His research can help explain how an e-mail program recognizes spam, or how Amazon knows what books a person is likely to want to buy.

“I’ve got two goals,” said Hinton (below, left). “One is to create machines that are better at learning, at things like recognizing objects and recognizing speech. The other is to understand how the human brain does it. So there’s an engineering goal and a scientific goal.”Geoff Hinton

Applying the principles of human learning to machines is a big part of the quest to create artificial intelligence.

“For example, what makes a handwritten shape the number two?” asked Hinton. “You might point out the loop at the bottom of a two.

“But whatever you say, I can find examples of twos that deviate. Yet you can still recognize them as twos. If you want a computer to recognize a two, you’re going to have to use machine learning. We can’t program a computer to explicitly recognize a two, but we can teach it to learn.”

Hinton’s work has already enabled computers to better find patterns in scientific, medical and economic data and he has developed algorithms used in voice recognition programs and the automatic reading of bank cheques. He has also contributed to psychology and neuroscience by proposing influential theories of how the brain generates its internal representations of the visual world from the sensory input it receives from the eyes. 

“Professor Hinton is a rare scholar who exemplifies the best of what university research can be,” said Professor Paul Young, U of T’s vice-president (research). “He is asking fundamental questions about how learning happens and about how the brain works at the same time that he’s creating algorithms that have immediate and sustained impact in the world. We are proud that he has chosen U of T as his academic home, and delighted that the Canada Council has seen fit to honour him.”

Hinton came to U of T’s computer science department in 1987 after a PhD from the University of Edinburgh and stints at Sussex University, the University of California San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University. In 1998 he spent three years setting up the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London, returning to U of T in 2001.

He holds the title University Professor, the highest honour U of T bestows on its faculty members and is a Distinguished Professor in Machine Learning. He is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and has been honoured with membership in the Royal Societies of Canada and the U.K. and with many other awards including the $1 million Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal.

The University of Toronto has an impressive record with the Killam Prize, with its researchers among the winners in each of the last seven competitions. Most recently, U of T linguist Keren Rice was among the 2011 honourees.

Hinton and the other 2012 winners will be honoured at a ceremony in Ottawa in May.

Read coverage of Hinton's win in the Toronto Star here.

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