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18 September, 2019 - 13:18 By Tony Quested

Amazon ML ace spearheads historic DeepMind Cambridge venture

Neil Lawrence

Cambridge University has appointed Amazon director Professor Neil Lawrence as its first DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning following an international search.

His appointment is supported by a benefaction from the world-leading AI business, anchored in the UK.

Professor Lawrence joins the University’s Department of Computer Science and Technology from Amazon Cambridge, where he has been director of Machine Learning for the past three years. He is also Professor of Machine Learning at the University of Sheffield, where he will retain a visiting position.

Professor Lawrence’s research interests are in probabilistic models with applications in computational biology, personalised health and developing economies. 

At Sheffield, he led the ML@SITraN group, and helped to develop an Open Data Science Initiative an approach to data science designed to address societal needs.

“There’s so much expertise at Cambridge, in all aspects of systems and data – that’s why I’m so excited about joining,” Professor Lawrence said. 

“AI and machine learning have the potential to reshape almost every aspect of our lives but we desperately need more machine learning specialists or else the promise of AI will not be realised.”

Prof Lawrence completed his PhD at Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology in 2000. He has previously held positions at Microsoft Research Cambridge and the University of Manchester. 

In addition to his academic research, he hosts the Talking Machines podcast and is a contributor to the Guardian.

For the past five years, Prof Lawrence has been working with Data Science Africa, an organisation looking to connect machine learning researchers in Africa in order to solve problems on the ground. 

He has an advisory role with the group and says that many of the machine learning approaches used in Africa can have benefits in the developed world as well.

“With data and machine learning you can have a more advanced data infrastructure in Africa than in some developed countries,” he said. 

“It’s rare in the UK or Europe that you’re asked to look at a machine learning problem from end to end, but you can do that in Africa, and it leads to better solutions. That’s the kind of approach I want to take to machine learning in my work at Cambridge.”

Demis Hassabis, co-founder and CEO, DeepMind, said: “I’m delighted to see Cambridge announce its first DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning. Professor Lawrence’s work in computational biology and his thoughtful advocacy for advancing technology in the developing world have been commendable. 

“It’s an honour for DeepMind to be able to support the Department of Computer Science and Technology – from which I gained so much – in this way and I look forward to seeing machine learning and AI flourish at Cambridge.”

Professor Ann Copestake, head of the Department of Computer Science and Technology added: “Neil will have a transformative effect on machine learning and artificial intelligence research at Cambridge. 

“He will build on our existing strengths in this area and work with colleagues from across the university to develop new solutions in ethical and sustainable ways.”

In addition to the gift to support the DeepMind Professorship, the company is also supporting four Master’s students from underrepresented groups wishing to study machine learning and computer science at Cambridge. The first students supported through this programme will be starting their studies this coming term.

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