Sentient artificial intelligence may take hundreds of years to develop, but AI is already beginning to transform nearly every industry, says Andrew Ng, a pioneer in the field.
Ng is the former chief scientist of Baidu, where he started a 1,300-person division that helped create the Chinese tech conglomerate’s AI-powered search engine, virtual assistant and other products. Before that, he co-founded Google Brain, the company’s deep-learning research team. His work on neural networks helped lead to the creation of an image-identification system that underpins the Android mobile operating system’s speech recognition. Ng also co-founded Coursera, an online education company.
In April 2017, the 42-year-old left Baidu to launch two AI startups in Palo Alto, Calif.: an online education platform called deeplearning.ai and Landing AI, which aims to bring AI to companies in manufacturing, agriculture and other industries. He recently spoke with The Future of Everything about how to create an equitable society in the age of automation, the way CEOs unintentionally mislead the public about AI and why—this time—the technology is here to stay.
AI Will Be Wired in Like Electricity
AI is a general purpose technology similar to the internet and electricity—applicable to a lot of industries. It’s hard to imagine running most companies or governments without the internet. In the future, we’ll have a hard time imagining how to run these things without great AI capabilities as well.
Artificial intelligence is set to revolutionize every sector, and will likely eliminate whole categories of jobs in the next few years, said Andrew Ng, a Stanford adjunct professor and former Baidu scientist, at the WSJ D.Live Asia conference.
A Conditional Basic Income Could Combat Job Loss
Of the things that worry me about AI, job displacement is really high up. We need to make sure that wealth we create [through AI] is distributed in a fair and equitable way. Ethics to me isn’t about making sure your robot doesn’t turn evil. It’s about really thinking through, what is the society we’re building? And making sure that it’s a fair and transparent and equitable one. I feel that government should play a role as well in conditional basic income. Silicon Valley has a lot of excitement about unconditional basic income. I don’t support that. There’s a lot of dignity to work. For someone that’s unemployed I really support the government giving them a safety net with the expectation that they’ll do something to contribute back, such as study, so they can gain the skills they need to re-enter the workforce and contribute back to the tax base that is hopefully paying for all of this.
We’ll Need to Change Education (With Help From Employers)
We built the K-12 [education] systems, and we built the higher-education system, and these were very hard things to do. We need something else on top of that now. I’m focused on trying to set up the educational structure to give people the skills they need to succeed in this economy. One is just the rise of accessible content, so Coursera and deeplearning.ai play a big role in that, but we need more than that. Businesses also play a huge role in building up education. In this brighter future I want to build, you wouldn’t go to school for four years and then code for the rest of your life. You have to be a lifelong learner. Even when you’re employed by a company, the company now has a higher responsibility to support you to keep your skills current. And with the rise of digital content businesses, [we] actually have the ability to do that at low cost and with very high levels of efficiency. Education is needed to create a stream of talent to really support business and government, as well as to have a well-educated electorate which is crucial to having a well-functioning democracy.
Automation Will Show Up at the Doctor’s Office and Beyond
In the case of manufacturing, we’ve been doing a ton of work on visual inspection. Rather than needing many people, sometimes hundreds of people, standing around using their eyes to inspect things, we can write software that uses a camera that can inspect if an electronic item has a scratch on it, for example. In agriculture we’re doing a lot of work to collect data from farms to help farmers make better decisions about when you should plant crops and when you should harvest, what’s the best crop to plant, to help farmers be more systematic in using big data in making these types of decisions. A lot of people have talked about automated diagnosis in health care. There’s a lot of regulatory issues to be sorted out still, but I think that having AI help in health care will be very valuable as a decision support system to help doctors read X-rays. I think that will come.
AI Winter Is Not Coming…
I don’t think we’re in for another AI winter [a period of decreased AI funding and interest]. In the earlier AI winters there was not that much economic value created through AI. It was relatively small groups of researchers whose work was overhyped. But if you look at it today the fundamentals do support the rise of AI. Companies are bringing in very large amounts of revenues with AI. There’s a clear roadmap for AI to create massive amounts of value. That’s not going away.
…but Our Timelines Are Too Rosy
I would actually welcome a correction in public opinion about what AI can and cannot do. This has happened to me multiple times, where I would listen to a CEO on stage make an announcement about what their company is doing with AI, and then 20 minutes later I’d talk to one of their engineers, and they’d say, “No, we’re not doing that, and we have no idea how to do it.” I think it still takes judgment to know what is and what isn’t possible with AI, and when the C-suite does not yet have that judgment it’s possible for companies to make promises very publicly that are just not feasible. Frankly, we see some of this in the self-driving space. Multiple auto [original equipment manufacturer] CEOs have promised self-driving car roadmaps that their own engineers think are unrealistic. I feel [CEOs are] being sincere but just not really understanding what can be done in a certain timeframe.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Prophets is an interview series from The Future of Everything where noteworthy figures from business, culture and technology reveal what lies ahead.