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Geoffrey Hinton's research has led to 'major advances' in artificial intelligence that can be applied to monitoring industrial plants for improved safety, creating better systems for voice recognition and reading bank cheques, a government news release said. ((Courtesy of NSERC))

A scientist who studies ways to help machines learn like humans has received Canada's top science and engineering prize.

Geoffrey Hinton, a computer science professor at the University of Toronto, has been awarded the 2011 Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, the federal government announced Monday morning in Ottawa.

The award named after Gerhard Herzberg, who won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, includes a $1-million research grant over the next five years.

Audio

Geoffrey Hinton talks to Quirks & Quarks Saturday, Feb. 19 at noon CBC Radio One.

Hinton's research is focused on understanding how collections of brain cells called neural networks can learn by changing their interactions with one another.

"Really the payoff so far has been [that] in trying to understand the brain, we've come up lots of ways in which these systems can learn," he said in an interview posted on Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's website.

The research has generated sets of instructions called algorithms  that can be used to help computers learn to recognize spoken words, automatically read bank cheques and monitor industrial plants for improved safety.

"The payoff has been technological…but the main goal is to understand how the brain does it and we still haven't solved that one."

Industry Minister Tony Clement and Suzanne Fortier, president of NSERC, also announced the winners of several other prizes Monday including:

  • McGill University astrophysicist Victoria  Kaspi, who received the $250,000 NSERC John  C.  Polanyi Award, given to a scientist whose research has led to a "a recent outstanding advance." Kaspi and her research team study neutron stars, very dense objects that may be formed by the collapse of a supernova, a star explosion. In the process, they have tested and strengthened the validity of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity; found missing links between two classes of dense stellar objects called pulsars and magentars; and found that fastest-rotating neutron star ever.
  • Electrical engineer Guy Dumont and anesthesiologist Mark Ansermino, both from the University of British Columbia, who received a $250,000 Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering. Their team has been working on intelligent devices and systems that help anesthesiologists monitor patients' vital signs during operations. The devices and systems have already been tested in hospital clinical trials.

All the awards are to be handed out in a ceremony Monday evening.