Coffee with… Yoshua Bengio | Uncertain future

What will our future look like?

Yoshua Bengio warns us from the beginning: we may be disappointed by his answer. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said.

If we want to talk to him so much about the future and technological development, it’s not because we suspect he has a crystal ball. This is because the Quebec scientist is one of the world’s most recognized experts in the field of artificial intelligence, which will undoubtedly change – amend: which – revolutionize our lives. His work on deep learning earned him the 2018 Turing Award (the “Nobel Prize for Computing”).


Yoshua Bengio hosted our columnist at his home.

“Any serious scientist should tell you the same thing: that the future is uncertain. It is very difficult to say what will happen because it is up to us collectively. What direction we decide to invest in, what social standards we set for ourselves,” says Yoshua Bengio.

Joshua Bengio welcomes us to his home near the University of Montreal, where he has taught since 1993 (he doesn’t drink coffee, which is good because neither do I) for this cafe. Very close to Mount Royal, where he walks every day, a point of departure where he often finds his best ideas.

When you talk to Yoshua Bengio, three things immediately strike you. His intelligence. Its hardness. His humility. “The success of scientific research requires rigor and humility. It happens that researchers become big leaders,” he says.

For this reason, he refrains from making grandiose (and risky) predictions about the future. “The future is much more uncertain than we think of as a linear trajectory,” he says.

In any case, the future will not be like a Hollywood sci-fi movie, where people think they have to fight against intelligent robots to survive. “These films are often exaggerated. »

On a philosophical level, the scientist (and fan of science fiction everyone has their own little contradictions) liked the moral of the film. His (with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson), where a man falls in love with intelligent software. Disclosure: at the end of the movie, the smart app leaves it… to go live with another smart app. “They [les machines] he leaves humanity behind and does his work. This is almost the most plausible scenario. [d’un futur avec des robots intelligents]. It is similar to our relationship with ants. You don’t want to crush them, they don’t change anything for you. »

Are you impressed by the latest feat of ChatGPT, a chatbot with amazing accuracy? You haven’t seen anything yet, warns Joshua Bengio. “There are things a 4-year-old can do that ChatGPT can do wrong,” he says.

One day, Yoshua Bengio is convinced that we will create a robot more efficient than the human brain. A robot that will learn like a child – the old theory of English mathematician Alan Turing.

“There’s no scientific reason why we can’t figure out where our intelligence originates with our brains and therefore build machines at least as capable as the human brain. It may take 10 years or 100 years. We are like climbers climbing a mountain without a map. We are moving forward, moving forward, but you never know what the next obstacles will be. »

Are you scared that robots are smarter than humans? you are normal Yoshua Bengio also fears the harmful effects of artificial intelligence.

“My nightmare is that it will become easier and easier for a truly sunken man with power like Vladimir Putin to use technology in a very destructive way for humanity. The more powerful our tools, the more this possibility increases. Our economic, social and political system is not designed for this. »

“Playing Frankenstein” would also be a mistake. “We don’t want computers to choose between their survival and ours. We can create machines whose purpose is to serve us, and they will be happy. There are more safe. »

For this reason, he campaigns for ethical artificial intelligence governed by the precautionary principle. He also contributed to the adoption of the Montreal Declaration on Responsible Artificial Intelligence. “We decide together – if we are a democracy – what we want [faire avec l’intelligence artificielle] and things we don’t want. It is good to slow down the adoption of technology. Before we make very powerful tools available to everyone, let’s think about it a bit. »

Artificial intelligence, built right, can lead to incredible advances in many fields. Among other things in medicine, an area where Yoshua Bengio has done a lot of research.


Montrealer Yoshua Bengio is a world authority in the field of artificial intelligence.

We will be able to defeat cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and find cures for many diseases.

Joshua Bengio

“Today, doctors are kind of medieval. We shoot arrows and see what works best for a large population. But that will change because we will have the tools to understand how cells work. Artificial intelligence will create drugs and treatments suitable for human cancer. »

Yoshua Bengio was born in Paris to Moroccan parents. After spending the summer with his grandparents in Montreal, the Bengio family moved to the Quebec metropolis when young Joshua was 12 years old.

As teenagers, Yoshua and his brother Sami bought personal computers and started programming with their own pocket money. Reminder: It’s the late 1970s.

Both brothers would go on to have impressive careers in artificial intelligence. Samy has made his mark in Silicon Valley: he is now the head of AI research at Apple after being one of the heads of AI research at Google for years. Yoshua has built a career as an academic researcher and has become one of the world’s leading experts in the field of artificial intelligence.

The Turing Award winner has other interests as well. One topic he is very interested in: climate change. “It’s almost an existential problem for humanity,” says Yoshua Bengio.

He hasn’t taken a flight since the pandemic, is giving his conferences virtually, and is worried about our slowness to respond to the climate emergency.

“Responding to climate change is very simple: just agree to a price on carbon,” he says. If everyone put a price on carbon at $200 a ton, we would solve the problem. […] Are people willing to pay four times more for gasoline? No, not at the moment. But this is a short-term calculation. This is the downside of balance, but there are worse downsides [si on ne fait rien]. »

He believes that, like climate change, society cannot help but adapt to AI. “We have something inside of us to find a solution. I am fundamentally optimistic. But not with rose colored glasses. »

Query without filter

Coffee and me: I don’t drink coffee, it’s too strong for me. I drink tea and herbal tea occasionally.

Last book you read? Order negative power: the history and relevance of anarchismby Normand Baillargeon (Lux Publisher).

A book everyone should read? Sapiens – A Brief History of Mankind, by Yuval Noah Harani. This is an instructive general public book to take a step back to humanity as a whole.

A person who inspires you? Geoffrey Hinton [professeur à l’Université de Toronto et sommité mondiale en intelligence artificielle]my model since the beginning of my education.

What qualities do you like in others? Smart. Modesty. I don’t like people who talk to take up all the space. To have a real dialogue, you have to be open to changing your mind, and that requires humility. You want to communicate with compassion and empathy with people who see you not just as a machine, but as a person.

Who is Joshua Bengio?

  • He was born in 1964 in Paris.
  • Winner of the 2018 Turing Prize (the “Nobel of Computing”) with Geoff Hinton and Yann LeCun for their work in deep learning.
  • A professor at the University of Montreal and a world authority in the field of artificial intelligence.
  • Founder and Scientific Director of Mila, Quebec Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
  • According to a Stanford University study, he was the third most cited scientist in the world by his peers in 2021 across all fields.

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