Myriam Côté, a computer scientist who has worked with Dr. Bengio for more than a decade, described him as an iconoclast and freethinker who would feel stymied by the strictures of Silicon Valley. A communitarian at heart, she said, he shuns hierarchy and is known for sharing the profits from his own projects with younger, less established colleagues.
“He wants to create in freedom,” she said. Citing the credo of student rebels in 1968 in Paris, where Dr. Bengio was born, she said his philosophy was: “It is forbidden to forbid.”
That, in turn, has informed his approach to A.I.
Even as the late Stephen Hawking, the celebrated Cambridge physicist, warned that A.I. could be “the worst event in the history of our civilization,” and the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has cautioned it could create an “immortal dictator,” he has remained more upbeat.
“We need to pursue scientific knowledge or all we will do is run against a wall,” he said. “But we need to do it wisely.” Referring to the use of algebra to compute the angles of missiles, he added: “You can’t blame the inventor of algebra for war.”
Nevertheless, at a time when Facebook algorithms have come under criticism for their influence in the 2016 United States election and fears are growing that robots could use A.I. to target humans without human oversight, Dr. Bengio is acutely aware that his innovations risk becoming “Frankenstein’s monsters.” As a result, he said, he supports regulating A.I., including an international treaty banning “killer robots” or “lethal autonomous weapons.”
But he dismissed the “Terminator scenario” in which a machine, endowed with human emotions, turns on its creator. Machines, he stressed, do not have egos and human sentiments, and are not slaves who want to be freed. “We imagine our creations turning against us because we are projecting our psychology into the machines,” he said, calling it “ridiculous.”
The son of Sephardic Jews from Casablanca, Morocco, who emigrated to Paris in the 1960s, Dr. Bengio traced his interest in A.I. to his childhood, when he hungrily devoured the science fiction books of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.