October 17, 2017
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By Astro Teller Oct 17, 2017
I've been interested in A.I. since I was a kid. I focused my Ph.D. on it. My first novel was a parable about the dangers of being fearful of it. For over 20 years, I've worked to help people understand it.
The field of A.I., of using computers to perform complex tasks as well as a human, is not new. People have been using deep learning with neural networks, a major subfield of A.I., for 40 years. A car used it to drive itself across the United States in 1995. But things started to change in 2010 and 2011, when a new set of academic papers identified the potential for machine learning models to become much better with scale: hundreds of times as many parameters for the algorithms and thousands of times as much data to train on. Computer systems working on a massively increased scale could produce not just quantitative growth, but a qualitative improvement in what machine learning could accomplish.
And they did. In 2012, a neural network running on 16,000 computer processors taught itself to recognize cats by looking at millions of YouTube videos. While it's easy to laugh, this proved the academic papers were on to something important. A.I. could make everyday products more useful.
In the years since, A.I. has left in its wake this set of things that are changing the world, but that we no longer consider A.I. For example, systems that understand handwriting aren't called A.I. It's optical character recognition. An app that uses A.I. to translate languages is just . . . translation. A.I. is a powerful ingredient, not the end in itself.
When you consider the ways A.I. meets or supersedes human performance, it is a normal reaction to be anxious of the change that represents. As with most new technologies, when people sit and think about what's going to happen, they don't make lists of the good stuff. And we have to have compassion for that. We cannot ignore the challenges presented by A.I.
But we should also list the ways it will amplify and ennoble us. Take self-driving cars. There would be fewer drivers, yes. But the ride might be safer and half the cost. That would be life-changing for the millions who can't get to jobs or the doctor because they can't drive. Imagine that problem solved by self-driving cars.
No one would go back 90 years and say, "Down with bulldozers!" and get out the shovels. Every time humanity has invented a new bulldozer, we've been able to go bigger, deeper, faster. A.I. will do the same. It will be a lever to help human minds solve problems the world faces.
Astro Teller is the head of X, the division of Alphabet that builds delivery drones, self-driving cars, and internet balloons.
This story appears in the November 2017 issue.