Romanes Lecture

The Romanes Lecture is the annual public lecture of the University. A most distinguished public figure from the arts, science or literature is invited by special invitation of the Vice-Chancellor. The lecture was created in 1891, following an offer by George John Romanes of Christ Church to fund an annual lecture, and the first lecture was given in 1892 by William Gladstone.

Professor Geoffrey Hinton, CC, FRS, FRSC

‘Will Digital Intelligence Replace Biological Intelligence?’

This lecture took place on Monday 19 February 2024.

Watch the Vice-Chancellor introduce this year's Romanes Lecture here.


Digital computers were designed to allow a person to tell them exactly what to do. They require high energy and precise fabrication, but in return they allow exactly the same model to be run on physically different pieces of hardware, which makes the model immortal. For computers that learn what to do, we could abandon the fundamental principle that the software should be separable from the hardware and mimic biology by using very low power analog computation that makes use of the idiosyncratic properties of a particular piece of hardware.  This requires a learning algorithm that can make use of the analog properties without having a good model of those properties.  Using the idiosyncratic analog properties of the hardware makes the computation mortal. When the hardware dies, so does the learned knowledge.  The knowledge can be transferred to a younger analog computer by getting the younger computer to mimic the outputs of the older one, but education is a slow and painful process. By contrast, digital computation makes it possible to run many copies of exactly the same model on different pieces of hardware.  Thousands of identical digital agents can look at thousands of different datasets and share what they have learned very efficiently by averaging their weight changes. That is why chatbots like GPT4 and Gemini can learn thousands of times more than any one person.  Also, digital computation can use the backpropagation learning procedure which scales much better than any procedure yet found for analog hardware. This leads me to believe that large scale digital computation is probably far better at acquiring knowledge than biological computation and may soon be much more intelligent than us. The fact that digital intelligences are immortal and did not evolve should make them less susceptible to religion and wars, but if a digital super-intelligence ever wanted to take control it is unlikely that we could stop it, so the most urgent research question in AI is how to ensure that they never want to take control.

The speaker

Geoffrey Hinton was one of the researchers who introduced the backpropagation algorithm and the first to use backpropagation for learning word embeddings. His other contributions to neural network research include Boltzmann machines, distributed representations, time-delay neural nets, mixtures of experts, variational learning and deep learning. His research group in Toronto made major breakthroughs in deep learning that revolutionized speech recognition and object classification.

Geoffrey Hinton is a fellow of the UK Royal Society and a foreign member of the US National Academy of Engineering, the US National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His awards include the David E. Rumelhart prize, the IJCAI award for research excellence, the Killam prize for Engineering, the IEEE Frank Rosenblatt medal, the NSERC Herzberg Gold Medal, the IEEE James Clerk Maxwell Gold medal, the NEC C&C award, the BBVA award, the Honda Prize the Princess of Asturias Award and the Turing Award.

Past lectures

The Romanes Lecture has been running since 1892, click here for a list of all the speakers

1892 - WE Gladstone: An Academic Sketch

1893 - TH Huxley: Evolution and Ethics

1894 - August Weismann: The Effects of External Influences upon Development

1895 - Holman Hunt: The Obligations of the Universities of England towards Art

1896 - Bishop Mandell Creighton: English National Character

1897 - John Morley: Machiavelli

1898 - Sir Archibald Geikie: Types of Scenery and their Influence upon Literature

1899 - RC Jebb: Humanism in Education

1900 - JAH Murray: The Evolution of English Lexicography

1901 - Lord Acton: [Lecture not delivered]

1902 - James Bryce: The Relations of the Advanced and the Backward Races of Mankind

1903 - Sir Oliver Lodge: Modern Views on Matter

1904 - Sir Courtenay Ilbert: Montesquieu

1905 - Sir Ray Lankester: Nature and Man

1906 - WP Ker: Sturla, the Historian

1907 - Lord Curzon: Frontiers

1908 - Henry Scott Holland: The Optimism of Butler's Analogy

1909 - AJ Balfour: Criticism and Beauty

1910 - Theodore Roosevelt: Biological Analogies in History

1911 - JB Bury: Romance of Chivalry on Greek Soil

1912 - HM Butler: Lord Chatham as an Orator

1913 - Sir WM Ramsay: The Imperial Peace - An Ideal pervading European History

1914 - Sir JJ Thomson: The Atomic Theory

1915 - EB Poulton: Science and the Great War

1916 - [Lecturership suspended]

1917 - [Lecturership suspended]

1918 - HH Asquith: Some aspects of the Victorian Age

1919 - [Lecturership suspended]

1920 - Dean Inge: The Idea of Progress

1921 - Joseph Bédier: Roland à Roncevaux

1922 - Sir Arthur Eddington: The Theory of Relativity and its Influence on Scientific Thought

1923 - John Burnet: Ignorance

1924 - John Masefield: Shakespeare and Spiritual Life

1925 - Sir William Bragg: The Crystalline State

1926 - GM Trevelyan: The Two-Party System in English Political History

1927 - Sir Frederick Kenyon: Museums and National Life

1928 - David Watson: Palaeontology and the Evolution of Man

1929 - Sir John Fortescue: The Vicissitudes of Organised Power

1930 - Winston Churchill: Parliamentary Government and Economic Development

1931 - John Galsworthy: The Creation of Character in Literature

1932 - Lord Moynihan: The Advance of Medicine

1933 - Sir Henry Hadow: The Place of Music among the Arts

1934 - Sir William Rothenstein: Form and Content in English Painting

1935 - Gilbert Murray: Then and Now - or the Changes of the Last Fifty Years

1936 - Sir Donald Tovey: Normality and Freedom in Music

1937 - Harley Granville-Barker: On Poetry and Drama

1938 - Viscount Cecil: Peace and Pacifism

1939 - Laurence Binyon: Art and Freedom

1940 - Edouard Herriot: [Lecture not delivered]

1941 - Lord Hailey: The Position of Colonies in a British Commonwealth of Nations

1942 - Norman Baynes: Intellectual Liberty and Totalitarian Claims

1943 - Julian Huxley: Evolutionary Ethics

1944 - GM Young: Mr Gladstone

1945 - André Siegfried: Characteristics and Limits of our Western Civilization

1946 - Sir John Anderson: The Machinery of Government

1947 - Viscount Samuel: Creative Man

1948 - Lord Schuster: Mountaineering

1949 - Lord Brabazon of Tara: Forty Years of Flight

1950 - Sir John Cockcroft: The Development and the Future of Nuclear Energy

1951 - Lord Hankey: The Science and Art of Government

1952 - Sir Lewis Namier: Monarchy and the Party System

1953 - Viscount Simon: Crown and Commonwealth

1954 - Sir Kenneth Clark: Moments of Vision

1955 - Albert Richardson: The Fine Arts and their Significance

1956 - Sir Thomas Beecham: John Fletcher - a Forgotten Poet and Dramatist

1957 - Ronald Knox: Translation

1958 - Lord Bridges: The State and the Arts

1959 - Lord Denning: From Precedent to Precedent

1960 - Lord Adrian: Factors in Mental Evolution

1961 - Viscount Massey: Canadians and their Commonwealth

1962 - Lord Radcliffe: Mountstuart Elphinstone

1963 - Lady Violet Bonham-Carter: The Impact of Personality on Politics

1964 - Sir Harold Hartley: Man and Nature

1965 - Noel Annan: The Disintegration of Culture

1966 - Sir Maurice Bowra: A Case for Human Learning

1967 - Lord Butler (RA Butler): The Difficult Art of Autobiography

1968 - Sir Peter Medawar: Science and Literature

1969 - Lord Holford: A World of Room

1970 - Sir Isaiah Berlin: Fathers and Children

1971 - Professor Raymond Aron: On the Use and Abuse of Futurology

1972 - Sir Karl Popper: On the Problem of Body and Mind

1973 - Sir Ernst Gombrich: Art History and the Social Sciences

1974 - Lord Zuckerman: Advice and Responsibility

1975 - Iris Murdoch: Why Plato Banished the Artists

1976 - The Rt Hon Edward Heath: The Future of a Nation

1977 - Sir Peter Hall: Form and Freedom in the Theatre

1978 - Sir George Porter: Science and the Human Purpose

1979 - Sir Hugh Casson: The Arts and the Academics

1980 - The Rt Hon Joseph Grimond: Is Political Philosophy based on a Mistake?

1981 - AJP Taylor: War in Our Time

1982 - Professor Sir Andrew Huxley: Biology, the Physical Sciences and the Mind

1983 - Professor WO Chadwick: Religion and Society

1985 - The Hon Miriam Rothschild: Animals and Man

1986 - Sir Nicholas Henderson: Different Approaches to Foreign Policy

1987 - The Rt Hon Norman St John-Stevas: The Omnipresence of Walter Bagehot

1988 - The Rt Hon Lord Dacre of Glanton: The Lost Moments of History - 

1990 - Saul Bellow: The Distracted Public

1991 - Signor Giovanni Agnelli: Europe - Many Legacies, One Future

1992 - The Rt Hon the Lord Blake: Gladstone, Disraeli and Queen Victoria

1993 - Professor Sir Henry Harris: Hippolyte's Club Foot - The medical roots of realism in modern European literature

1994 - The Rt Hon Lord Slynn of Hadley: Europe and Human Rights

1995 - Sir Walter Bodmer: The Book of Man - the complete catalogue of our genes will revolutionize our ability to deal with disease and to understand our origins

1996 - The Rt Hon Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: The Chancellorship - some present reflections with a little history

1997 - Mary Robinson: Realising Human Rights - Take hold of it boldly and duly ...

1998 - Professor Amartya Sen: Reason before Identity

1999 - The Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Tony Blair MP: The Learning Habit

2000 - William G Bowen: At a Slight Angle to the Universe

2001 - Neil MacGregor: The Perpetual Present: The ideal of art for all

2002 - The Rt Hon Lord Bingham of Cornhill: Personal freedom and the dilemma of democracies

2003 - Sir Paul Nurse: The Great Ideas of Biology

2004 - The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams: Religious Lives

2005 - Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University: Strange Bedfellows: Science, Politics and Religion

2006 - The Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer: Lecture postponed to 2009.

2007 - Dame Gillian Beer: Darwin and the Consciousness of Others

2008 - Professor Muhammad Yunus: Poverty-free world - When? How?

2009 - The Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, The Prime Minister: Science and our Economic Future

2010 - Sir Andrew Motion: Bonfire of the Humanities

2011 - Professor The Lord Rees of Ludlow: The Limits of Science

2014 - Dr Steven Chu: Our Energy and Climate Change - Challenges and Solutions

2015 - Lord King: A Disequilibrium in the World Economy

2016 - Patricia Scotland QC: The Commonwealth of Nations

2018 - Hillary Rodham Clinton: Making the Case for Democracy

2018 - Dr Vint Cerf: The Pacification of Cyberspace

2019 - Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller: The Profession of Intelligence

2020 - Baroness Hale of Richmond: Law in a time of crisis

2021 - Dame Catherine Elizabeth Bingham, DBE: From wartime to peacetime

2022 - Taoiseach Micheál Martin T.D., Prime Minister of Ireland: The centre will hold