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From Waikato to leading the world in Artificial General Intelligence

9 May 2018

Dr Shane Legg.

Dr Shane Legg started out with a Dick Smith’s computer for his 10th birthday, now he is at the forefront of a new computing revolution.

The co-founder of Google DeepMind graduated from the University of Waikato in 1996 with a Bachelor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences with honours. He has just been given a Distinguished Alumni Award, returning from London to his academic roots at Waikato for the honour. He says it was great to see some familiar faces from his student days, and also students who had travelled from his old high school, Rotorua Lakes, for the occasion.

It was as a student at Waikato that he first learned about machine learning, contributing code to the Java version of machine learning software which is still in use today - Weka. Now when he is speaking to new intakes of staff at DeepMind, he likes to ask: who does Weka? He says he is gratified to know there are always hands that go up, and it gives him great satisfaction to see it’s still being used after all these years.

During his career he has seen an incredible explosion in computing power, and profound changes which show no sign of slowing. At his award ceremony, Dr Legg highlighted the progress in machine learning, neuroscience and the rapid progress in computer software converging to support the future of AGI. One of DeepMind’s biggest breakthroughs was creating a system that could teach itself to play a range of computer games, and Dr Legg took many in the auditorium back in time with a Pacman visualisation of how the system adapted and became a superhuman at the classic game.

Dr Legg also leads DeepMind’s work on AI safety, which has included the development of a “big red button” to turn off machines when they start behaving in ways that humans don’t want them to.

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