Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don't think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures. But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton, and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as "artificial intelligence," or AI. Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as the tech industry's version of the Nobel Prize, per the AP. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google. Although they've known each other for more than 30 years, the three have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks.
These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition; they're also a critical component of robotic systems automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving. Some people are worried the results of these efforts might spiral out of control, with AI stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines. Bengio, Hinton, and LeCun share some of those concerns, but are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI—empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks. Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton says: "For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense. My message to young researchers is: Don't be put off if everyone tells you what [you] are doing is silly." (Read more artificial intelligence stories.)