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'Godfather' of AI pledges $1 million to fix Ontario Science Centre

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A world-renowned Toronto academic known as the “Godfather” of artificial intelligence has pledged $1 million to repair the roof of the Ontario Science Centre – as long as it stays on its current site.

Geoffrey Hinton said in an interview his money “comes from science” and he wished that it return to inspire children to think and learn about science in ways that could spark future scientific accomplishments.

“I think it’s crazy to close it. I was very disappointed when I heard the news. I used to go there with my children. I think it’s a wonderful place,” said the 76-year-old professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Toronto.

Hinton is one of a growing number of Ontarians who have stepped forward with offers of funds to save the site, after the building was closed abruptly when the provincial government claimed failing roof panels made the building unsafe.

However an engineering report the government relied on for their decision gave other options than closure, pointing out the hazardous roof panels made up only about six per cent of the structure and the repairs could be accomplished by restricting access to some of the building.

The Science Centre was designed by Ontario architect Raymond Moriyama and opened in 1969 as one of the first science museums in the world with interactive exhibits.

Premier Doug Ford’s government has pushed to make a new, smaller Science Centre at the controversial redevelopment of Ontario Place, though the building is not expected to open until 2028.

Hinton said he read about the pledges of venture capitalist Adam McNamara to pay $522,500 to keep the building open in the short term. Philanthropist Sabina Vohra-Miller and her husband, former Shopify executive Craig Miller, have pledged $1 million.

Vohra-Miller posted on social media she would like to put together a collective to raise more funds.

Hinton said he had heard from another AI startup founder who was also willing to donate some $250,000.

The provincial government has said the cost of a new roof would be in the range of $22-$40 million. The engineer’s report from Rimkus Consulting said it would be under $8 million in the first year, another $4.5 million to 2029, and $13 million to 2034.

Dr. Hinton said the money would come from a foundation whose initial funds came from a company that made great strides in the field of deep learning, which is the basis of current AI. He said the company was sold to Google. Dr. Hinton made news when he left a senior post at Google last year, saying he had concerns about the future of AI.

He said he was concerned about a recent request for proposals issued by Infrastructure Ontario that called for a temporary science centre with as little as 50,000 square feet, much smaller than the building's current footprint.

“I think it would be much more sensible to repair the building,” he said. “These demonstrations take space, and engaging with physical demonstrations is a different experience from just seeing things on YouTube. So I think they need the space and they won’t get the space anywhere else,” he said.

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