Facebook AI chief Yann LeCun is stepping down to take on dedicated research role

Yann LeCun, the head of Facebook’s internal artificial intelligence research division, is stepping down from his role to take on a more dedicated research position as chief AI scientist. LeCun has been an outspoken voice in the industry and a frequent critic of what the research community feels is unwarranted fear mongering around the technology. He will be handing his position over to Jérôme Pesenti, the chief technology officer of IBM’s Big Data group. The news was reported first by Quartz, and confirmed independently to The Verge today.

LeCun, a French computer scientist based out of New York City, has been instrumental in developing modern approaches to AI, including uses of convolutional neural nets for analyzing the visual data central to computer vision techniques. LeCun has also always considered himself more of a researcher than an executive. But Facebook’s growing dependence on AI development and its impact on existing products has created the need for a more managerial go-between for Facebook AI Research (FAIR), the company’s applied machine learning (AML) division headed up by Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, and Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer.

“There was a need for someone to basically oversee all the AI at Facebook, across research, development, and have a connection with product,” LeCun told Quartz in an interview. “AML and FAIR were reporting to the CTO, who no longer has the bandwidth to take care of that, given the increased importance of AI and more systems built around deep learning.” Pesenti, who was chosen with help from LeCun, will report directly to Schroepfer and act as an overseer of all the company’s AI efforts. His experience working with a large organization like IBM combined with his appreciation for research is why Pesenti was chosen, according to a person familiar with the decision. Pesenti’s official role will be vice president of AI.

LeCun, who retains a graduate teaching gig at NYU, will now get to focus more on research, while still having a direct role in guiding FAIR’s direction. He’ll also get to continue evangelizing a positive outlook on the AI industry as a whole. The latter is increasingly important for companies like Facebook and Google. Both have massive research organizations — Facebook now employs around 130 researchers, just added a new lab in Montreal, and has staffed up considerably in Paris. And both companies are treading into uncharted territory with regards to robotics, automation, and other unforeseen AI advancements. As AI becomes more sophisticated, it may continue to engender negative responses in everyday consumers who fear the technology will lead to mass unemployment or some unprecedented doomsday scenario.

As a result, LeCun has spoken at length about how damaging it is to associate AI with pictures of the Terminator and has made an effort to ground talks of AI in hard data and research specifics, instead of Elon Musk-style prognostications. LeCun also made headlines recently for condemning the team behind the humanoid robot Sophia for urging media organizations and the public to consider the robot “true AI” worthy of empathy and capable of true emotion. “This is to AI as prestidigitation is to real magic,” LeCun tweeted last week. “Perhaps we should call this ‘Cargo Cult AI’ or ‘Potemkin AI’ or ‘Wizard-of-Oz AI.’ In other words, it’s complete bullsh*t (pardon my French).” Suffice it to say that LeCun, even in his new chief scientist role, will continue to speak out about AI and its role in society as a leading mind at the forefront of the movement.