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Ulysses Medal: ‘Godfather of AI’ Professor Geoffrey Hinton awarded UCD's highest honour

Posted 8 April, 2024

Professor Geoffrey Hinton, the 'Godfather of AI', who was awarded UCD's highest honour, the Ulysses Medal Photo: Chris Bellew/ Fennell Photography

One of the most influential AI researchers of the past 50 years, Professor Geoffrey Hinton has received the UCD Ulysses Medal, the highest honour the University can bestow, in recognition of his immense global contributions.

A pioneer who spent his career trying to build AI systems that model the human brain, Professor Hinton’s impact on the field is undeniable.
Deep learning has revolutionised digital services and many industries, transforming search engines, natural language processing, speech recognition, finance, medicine, agriculture, and countless other fields.

“He spent decades understanding the human brain to draw inspiration to create better computer learning models,” said (opens in a new window)Dr Andrew Hines, delivering the citation.

“Now that these technologies are integrated into products and services we use every day, the moniker of “Godfather of AI” is not an exaggeration.”

Professor Hinton was presented with the UCD Ulysses Medal by University President (opens in a new window)Professor Orla Feely during a ceremony at UCD O’Reilly.

UCD President Professor Orla Feely and Professor Geoffrey Hinton Photo: Chris Bellew/ Fennell Photography

As developers around the world race to build the biggest AI systems that they can, the British-Canadian computer scientist and cognitive psychologist resigned from his decade’s long work with Google in 2023 because he wanted to talk more freely “about the dangers of AI without considering how this would impact Google”.

“For the last year he has been sharing his knowledge with a wider public audience than at any time during his busy career. He is raising awareness and concerns about how humanity will use and develop artificial intelligence,” said Dr Hines. 

“As to whether this could damage his lifetime of accumulated respect, [Professor Hinton] remarked: ‘I don’t really care about my legacy, The best thing you can do with a good reputation is squander it’. 

“From my perspective, these are the words of someone to whom we should carefully listen.”

The great-great-grandson of logician George Boole whose work, undertaken in Ireland, underpins the foundations of modern computer science, Professor Hinton received his BA in Experimental Psychology from Cambridge in 1970 and his PhD in Artificial Intelligence from Edinburgh in 1978.

Among the many major breakthroughs in deep learning he is credited with, is the idea of backpropagation, a way of training artificial neural networks without the need to have continued input from a human.

Outlined in a co-authored a landmark paper with David Rumelhart and Ronald Williams, this technique is key to how AI systems such ChatGPT are trained on massive amounts of data to interpret prompts and generate responses. 

An emeritus distinguished professor at the University of Toronto, Professor Hinton has mentored over 30 doctoral students, many of which have gone on to mentor future generations of researchers in academia or in Industry, such as Yann LeCun in Meta and Ilya Sutskever in OpanAI.

A fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Canada, and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, in 2018 he was awarded the Turing Award for conceptual and engineering breakthroughs “that have made deep neural networks a critical component of computing”.

The same year he was named as a ‘Companion of the Order of Canada’ – one of the highest honours for merit awarded by Canada, reserved for those that have ‘demonstrated the highest degree of service’ to the country and humanity. 

The UCD Ulysses Medal was inaugurated in 2005, as part of the university’s sesquicentennial celebrations, to highlight the ‘creative brilliance’ of UCD alumnus James Joyce. 

Previous recipients of the UCD Ulysses Medal include former US President Bill Clinton, Professor Noam Chomsky, playwright Frank McGuinness, Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, and former Irish President Mary McAleese.

By:David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie