Artificial intelligence has gone through some dismal periods, which those in the field gloomily refer to as “AI winters.” This is not one of those times; in fact, AI is so hot right now that tech giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, Baidu, and Microsoft are battling for the leading minds in the field. The current excitement about AI stems, in great part, from groundbreaking advances involving what are known as “convolutional neural networks.” This machine learning technique promises dramatic improvements in things like computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing. You probably have heard of it by its more layperson-friendly name: “Deep Learning.”
Few people have been more closely associated with Deep Learning than Yann LeCun, 54. Working as a Bell Labs researcher during the late 1980s, LeCun developed the convolutional network technique and showed how it could be used to significantly improve handwriting recognition; many of the checks written in the United States are now processed with his approach. Between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s, when neural networks had fallen out of favor, LeCun was one of a handful of scientists who persevered with them. He became a professor at New York University in 2003, and has since spearheaded many other Deep Learning advances.
More recently, Deep Learning and its related fields grew to become one of the most active areas in computer research. Which is one reason that at the end of 2013, LeCun was appointed head of the newly-created Artificial Intelligence Research Lab at Facebook, though he continues with his NYU duties.
LeCun was born in France, and retains from his native country a sense of the importance of the role of the “public intellectual.” He writes and speaks frequently in his technical areas, of course, but is also not afraid to opine outside his field, including about current events.
IEEE Spectrum contributor Lee Gomes spoke with LeCun at his Facebook office in New York City. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.