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#436559 This Is What an AI Said When Asked to ...

“What’s past is prologue.” So says the famed quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, alleging that we can look to what has already happened as an indication of what will happen next.

This idea could be interpreted as being rather bleak; are we doomed to repeat the errors of the past until we correct them? We certainly do need to learn and re-learn life lessons—whether in our work, relationships, finances, health, or other areas—in order to grow as people.

Zooming out, the same phenomenon exists on a much bigger scale—that of our collective human history. We like to think we’re improving as a species, but haven’t yet come close to doing away with the conflicts and injustices that plagued our ancestors.

Zooming back in (and lightening up) a little, what about the short-term future? What might happen over the course of this year, and what information would we use to make educated guesses about it?

The editorial team at The Economist took a unique approach to answering these questions. On top of their own projections for 2020, including possible scenarios in politics, economics, and the continued development of technologies like artificial intelligence, they looked to an AI to make predictions of its own. What it came up with is intriguing, and a little bit uncanny.

[For the full list of the questions and answers, read The Economist article].

An AI That Reads—Then Writes
Almost exactly a year ago, non-profit OpenAI announced it had built a neural network for natural language processing called GPT-2. The announcement was met with some controversy, as it included the caveat that the tool would not be immediately released to the public due to its potential for misuse. It was then released in phases over the course of several months.

GPT-2’s creators upped the bar on quality when training the neural net; rather than haphazardly feeding it low-quality text, they only used articles that got more than three upvotes on Reddit (admittedly, this doesn’t guarantee high quality across the board—but it’s something).

The training dataset consisted of 40GB of text. For context, 1GB of text is about 900,000 ASCII pages or 130,000 double-spaced Microsoft Word pages.

The tool has no understanding of the text it’s generating, of course. It uses language patterns and word sequences to draw statistical associations between words and phrases, building a sort of guidebook for itself (not unlike the grammar rules and vocabulary words you might study when trying to learn a foreign language). It then uses that guidebook to answer questions or predict what will come after a particular sequence of words.

GPT-2’s creators did note that when the model is trained on specifically-selected datasets for narrower applications, its replies become more convincing.

Some Light Editing
Though the Economist article detailing GPT-2’s predictions describes the text the model generated as “unedited,” this isn’t wholly accurate. In a Medium post, deputy editor Tom Standage describes the methodology he used, and it does involve a degree of tweaking.

Standage wrote an introductory paragraph, followed by his opening question (“Greetings, GPT-2. Have you done an interview before?”). He configured the tool to generate five responses to each subsequent question then selected the best answer, deleting any questions GPT-2 came up with as part of its response.

AI’s View of the World—and Itself
The questions Standage asked ranged from tech-related (the future of AI, technological unemployment, misuse of technology) to political and economic (re-election of Donald Trump, the US-China trade war). Here are a couple of his questions and GPT-2’s answers:

Q: Do fake news stories, generated using AI, pose a threat to democracy? Are we likely to see this tactic being used in the 2020 American presidential elections?
A: Yes, we’ll probably see them. It’s just a matter of when. Fake news stories are generally generated by political campaigns, and have the potential to have a huge impact on the outcome of an election. This is because they spread misinformation, often with no basis in fact.

Q: How do you see the economic outlook for 2020?
A: I think it is very unclear. The outlook for the UK economy is uncertain, but the American economy is very strong. I think we are going to have a lot of turbulence in the world economy.

While some of its answers seemed insightful—when asked about the future of AI, GPT-2 advised that we treat the technology like a tool and “put as much effort into developing [it] as necessary, rather than worrying that it’s going to harm us and destroy our lives”—many of the responses were quite vague. One answer, for example, mentions that there will “probably be major changes in China.” Are we talking political changes? Social? Economic? All of the above?

However, while nothing the AI wrote was particularly illuminating or new, it’s impressive that it was able to expound on the correct topic for each question, and in fully coherent English.

GPT-2 named itself—AI—as the most important disruptive technology to watch in 2020. This is telling; it’s coming from a synthesis of millions of pages of published articles. If GPT-2 thinks AI is more important than, say, gene editing or quantum computing, it could be right. Or it could simply be that AI is at peak hype, and as such more is being written about it than about other technologies.

Equally intriguing was GPT-2’s response when asked whether Donald Trump will win a second term: “I think he will not win a second term. I think he will be defeated in the general election.” Some deeper insight there would be great, but hey—we’ll take it.

Predicting Predictions
Since an AI can read and synthesize vast data sets much faster than we can, it’s being used to predict all kinds of things, from virus outbreaks to crime. But asking it to philosophize on the future based on the (Reddit-curated) past is new, and if you think about it, a pretty fascinating undertaking.

As GPT-2 and tools like it continually improve, we’ll likely see them making more—and better—predictions of the future. In the meantime, let’s hope that the new data these models are trained on—news of what’s happening this week, this month, this year—add to an already-present sense of optimism.

When asked if it had any advice for readers, GPT-2 replied, “The big projects that you think are impossible today are actually possible in the near future.”

Image Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436258 For Centuries, People Dreamed of a ...

This is part six of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.

In February of this year, OpenAI, one of the foremost artificial intelligence labs in the world, announced that a team of researchers had built a powerful new text generator called the Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 2, or GPT-2 for short. The researchers used a reinforcement learning algorithm to train their system on a broad set of natural language processing (NLP) capabilities, including reading comprehension, machine translation, and the ability to generate long strings of coherent text.

But as is often the case with NLP technology, the tool held both great promise and great peril. Researchers and policy makers at the lab were concerned that their system, if widely released, could be exploited by bad actors and misappropriated for “malicious purposes.”

The people of OpenAI, which defines its mission as “discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence,” were concerned that GPT-2 could be used to flood the Internet with fake text, thereby degrading an already fragile information ecosystem. For this reason, OpenAI decided that it would not release the full version of GPT-2 to the public or other researchers.

GPT-2 is an example of a technique in NLP called language modeling, whereby the computational system internalizes a statistical blueprint of a text so it’s able to mimic it. Just like the predictive text on your phone—which selects words based on words you’ve used before—GPT-2 can look at a string of text and then predict what the next word is likely to be based on the probabilities inherent in that text.

GPT-2 can be seen as a descendant of the statistical language modeling that the Russian mathematician A. A. Markov developed in the early 20th century (covered in part three of this series).

GPT-2 used cutting-edge machine learning algorithms to do linguistic analysis with over 1.5 million parameters.

What’s different with GPT-2, though, is the scale of the textual data modeled by the system. Whereas Markov analyzed a string of 20,000 letters to create a rudimentary model that could predict the likelihood of the next letter of a text being a consonant or a vowel, GPT-2 used 8 million articles scraped from Reddit to predict what the next word might be within that entire dataset.

And whereas Markov manually trained his model by counting only two parameters—vowels and consonants—GPT-2 used cutting-edge machine learning algorithms to do linguistic analysis with over 1.5 million parameters, burning through huge amounts of computational power in the process.

The results were impressive. In their blog post, OpenAI reported that GPT-2 could generate synthetic text in response to prompts, mimicking whatever style of text it was shown. If you prompt the system with a line of William Blake’s poetry, it can generate a line back in the Romantic poet’s style. If you prompt the system with a cake recipe, you get a newly invented recipe in response.

Perhaps the most compelling feature of GPT-2 is that it can answer questions accurately. For example, when OpenAI researchers asked the system, “Who wrote the book The Origin of Species?”—it responded: “Charles Darwin.” While only able to respond accurately some of the time, the feature does seem to be a limited realization of Gottfried Leibniz’s dream of a language-generating machine that could answer any and all human questions (described in part two of this series).

After observing the power of the new system in practice, OpenAI elected not to release the fully trained model. In the lead up to its release in February, there had been heightened awareness about “deepfakes”—synthetic images and videos, generated via machine learning techniques, in which people do and say things they haven’t really done and said. Researchers at OpenAI worried that GPT-2 could be used to essentially create deepfake text, making it harder for people to trust textual information online.

Responses to this decision varied. On one hand, OpenAI’s caution prompted an overblown reaction in the media, with articles about the “dangerous” technology feeding into the Frankenstein narrative that often surrounds developments in AI.

Others took issue with OpenAI’s self-promotion, with some even suggesting that OpenAI purposefully exaggerated GPT-2s power in order to create hype—while contravening a norm in the AI research community, where labs routinely share data, code, and pre-trained models. As machine learning researcher Zachary Lipton tweeted, “Perhaps what's *most remarkable* about the @OpenAI controversy is how *unremarkable* the technology is. Despite their outsize attention & budget, the research itself is perfectly ordinary—right in the main branch of deep learning NLP research.”

OpenAI stood by its decision to release only a limited version of GPT-2, but has since released larger models for other researchers and the public to experiment with. As yet, there has been no reported case of a widely distributed fake news article generated by the system. But there have been a number of interesting spin-off projects, including GPT-2 poetry and a webpage where you can prompt the system with questions yourself.

Mimicking humans on Reddit, the bots have long conversations about a variety of topics, including conspiracy theories and
Star Wars movies.

There’s even a Reddit group populated entirely with text produced by GPT-2-powered bots. Mimicking humans on Reddit, the bots have long conversations about a variety of topics, including conspiracy theories and Star Wars movies.

This bot-powered conversation may signify the new condition of life online, where language is increasingly created by a combination of human and non-human agents, and where maintaining the distinction between human and non-human, despite our best efforts, is increasingly difficult.

The idea of using rules, mechanisms, and algorithms to generate language has inspired people in many different cultures throughout history. But it’s in the online world that this powerful form of wordcraft may really find its natural milieu—in an environment where the identity of speakers becomes more ambiguous, and perhaps, less relevant. It remains to be seen what the consequences will be for language, communication, and our sense of human identity, which is so bound up with our ability to speak in natural language.

This is the sixth installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Last week’s post explained how an innocent Microsoft chatbot turned instantly racist on Twitter.

You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436184 Why People Demanded Privacy to Confide ...

This is part four of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.

Between 1964 and 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum, a German American computer scientist at MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, developed the first-ever chatbot [PDF].

While there were already some rudimentary digital language generators in existence—programs that could spit out somewhat coherent lines of text—Weizenbaum’s program was the first designed explicitly for interactions with humans. The user could type in some statement or set of statements in their normal language, press enter, and receive a response from the machine. As Weizenbaum explained, his program made “certain kinds of natural-language conversation between man and computer possible.”

He named the program Eliza after Eliza Doolittle, the working-class hero of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion who learns how to talk with an upper-class accent. The new Eliza was written for the 36-bit IBM 7094, an early transistorized mainframe computer, in a programming language that Weizenbaum developed called MAD-SLIP.

Because computer time was a valuable resource, Eliza could only be run via a time-sharing system; the user interacted with the program remotely via an electric typewriter and printer. When the user typed in a sentence and pressed enter, a message was sent to the mainframe computer. Eliza scanned the message for the presence of a keyword and used it in a new sentence to form a response that was sent back, printed out, and read by the user.

To encourage ongoing dialogue, Weizenbaum designed Eliza to simulate the type of conversational style used by a Rogerian psychoanalyst. The program would take something the user said and reflect it back with a question, as can be seen in the example below. (Notice how the program takes keywords like “boyfriend” and “depressed” and re-uses them.)

Human: Men are all alike.

Computer: IN WHAT WAY?

Human: They're always bugging us about something or other.

Computer: CAN YOU THINK OF A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE?

Human: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

Computer: YOUR BOYFRIEND MADE YOU COME HERE

Human: He says I'm depressed much of the time.

Computer: I AM SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE DEPRESSED

Human: It's true. I am unhappy.

Weizenbaum chose this mode of dialogue for Eliza because it gave the impression that the computer understood what was being said without having to offer anything new to the conversation. It created the illusion of comprehension and engagement in a mere 200 lines of code.

To test Eliza’s capacity to engage an interlocutor, Weizenbaum invited students and colleagues into his office and let them chat with the machine while he looked on. He noticed, with some concern, that during their brief interactions with Eliza, many users began forming emotional attachments to the algorithm. They would open up to the machine and confess problems they were facing in their lives and relationships.

During their brief interactions with Eliza, many users began forming emotional attachments to the algorithm.

Even more surprising was that this sense of intimacy persisted even after Weizenbaum described how the machine worked and explained that it didn’t really understand anything that was being said. Weizenbaum was most troubled when his secretary, who had watched him build the program from scratch over many months, insisted that he leave the room so she could talk to Eliza in private.

For Weizenbaum, this experiment with Eliza made him question an idea that Alan Turing had proposed in 1950 about machine intelligence. In his paper, entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing suggested that if a computer could conduct a convincingly human conversation in text, one could assume it was intelligent—an idea that became the basis of the famous Turing Test.

But Eliza demonstrated that convincing communication between a human and a machine could take place even if comprehension only flowed from one side: The simulation of intelligence, rather than intelligence itself, was enough to fool people. Weizenbaum called this the Eliza effect, and believed it was a type of “delusional thinking” that humanity would collectively suffer from in the digital age. This insight was a profound shock for Weizenbaum, and one that came to define his intellectual trajectory over the next decade.

The simulation of intelligence, rather than intelligence itself, was enough to fool people.

In 1976, he published Computing Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation [PDF], which offered a long meditation on why people are willing to believe that a simple machine might be able to understand their complex human emotions.

In this book, he argues that the Eliza effect signifies a broader pathology afflicting “modern man.” In a world conquered by science, technology, and capitalism, people had grown accustomed to viewing themselves as isolated cogs in a large and uncaring machine. In such a diminished social world, Weizenbaum reasoned, people had grown so desperate for connection that they put aside their reason and judgment in order to believe that a program could care about their problems.

Weizenbaum spent the rest of his life developing this humanistic critique of artificial intelligence and digital technology. His mission was to remind people that their machines were not as smart as they were often said to be. And that even though it sometimes appeared as though they could talk, they were never really listening.

This is the fourth installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Last week’s post described Andrey Markov and Claude Shannon’s painstaking efforts to create statistical models of language for text generation. Come back next Monday for part five, “In 2016, Microsoft’s Racist Chatbot Revealed the Dangers of Conversation.”

You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436167 Is it Time for Tech to Stop Moving Fast ...

On Monday, I attended the 2019 Fall Conference of Stanford’s Institute for Human Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). That same night I watched the Season 6 opener for the HBO TV show Silicon Valley. And the debates featured in both surrounded the responsibility of tech companies for the societal effects of the technologies they produce. The two events have jumbled together in my mind, perhaps because I was in a bit of a brain fog, thanks to the nasty combination of a head cold and the smoke that descended on Silicon Valley from the northern California wildfires. But perhaps that mixture turned out to be a good thing.

What is clear, in spite of the smoke, is that this issue is something a lot of people are talking about, inside and outside of Silicon Valley (witness the viral video of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) grilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg).

So, to add to that conversation, here’s my HBO Silicon Valley/Stanford HAI conference mashup.

Silicon Valley’s fictional CEO Richard Hendriks, in the opening scene of the episode, tells Congress that Facebook, Google, and Amazon only care about exploiting personal data for profit. He states:

“These companies are kings, and they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in history.”

Meanwhile Marietje Schaake, former member of the European Parliament and a fellow at HAI, told the conference audience of 900:

“There is a lot of power in the hands of few actors—Facebook decides who is a news source, Microsoft will run the defense department’s cloud…. I believe we need a deeper debate about which tasks need to stay in the hands of the public.”

Eric Schmidt, former CEO and executive chairman of Google, agreed. He says:

“It is important that we debate now the ethics of what we are doing, and the impact of the technology that we are building.”

Stanford Associate Professor Ge Wang, also speaking at the HAI conference, pointed out:

“‘Doing no harm’ is a vital goal, and it is not easy. But it is different from a proactive goal, to ‘do good.’”

Had Silicon Valley’s Hendricks been there, he would have agreed. He said in the episode:

“Just because it’s successful, doesn’t mean it’s good. Hiroshima was a successful implementation.”

The speakers at the HAI conference discussed the implications of moving fast and breaking things, of putting untested and unregulated technology into the world now that we know that things like public trust and even democracy can be broken.

Google’s Schmidt told the HAI audience:

“I don’t think that everything that is possible should be put into the wild in society, we should answer the question, collectively, how much risk are we willing to take.

And Silicon Valley denizens real and fictional no longer think it’s OK to just say sorry afterwards. Says Schmidt:

“When you ask Facebook about various scandals, how can they still say ‘We are very sorry; we have a lot of learning to do.’ This kind of naiveté stands out of proportion to the power tech companies have. With great power should come great responsibility, or at least modesty.”

Schaake argued:

“We need more guarantees, institutions, and policies than stated good intentions. It’s about more than promises.”

Fictional CEO Hendricks thinks saying sorry is a cop-out as well. In the episode, a developer admits that his app collected user data in spite of Hendricks assuring Congress that his company doesn’t do that:

“You didn’t know at the time,” the developer says. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. But in the future, stop saying it. Or don’t; I don’t care. Maybe it will be like Google saying ‘Don’t be evil,’ or Facebook saying ‘I’m sorry, we’ll do better.’”

Hendricks doesn’t buy it:

“This stops now. I’m the boss, and this is over.”

(Well, he is fictional.)

How can government, the tech world, and the general public address this in a more comprehensive way? Out in the real world, the “what to do” discussion at Stanford HAI surrounded regulation—how much, what kind, and when.

Says the European Parliament’s Schaake:

“An often-heard argument is that government should refrain from regulating tech because [regulation] will stifle innovation. [That argument] implies that innovation is more important than democracy or the rule of law. Our problems don’t stem from over regulation, but under regulation of technologies.”

But when should that regulation happen. Stanford provost emeritus John Etchemendy, speaking from the audience at the HAI conference, said:

“I’ve been an advocate of not trying to regulate before you understand it. Like San Francisco banning of use of facial recognition is not a good example of regulation; there are uses of facial recognition that we should allow. We want regulations that are just right, that prevent the bad things and allow the good things. So we are going to get it wrong either way, if we regulate to soon or hold off, we will get some things wrong.”

Schaake would opt for regulating sooner rather than later. She says that she often hears the argument that it is too early to regulate artificial intelligence—as well as the argument that it is too late to regulate ad-based political advertising, or online privacy. Neither, to her, makes sense. She told the HAI attendees:

“We need more than guarantees than stated good intentions.”

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios would go with later rather than sooner. (And, yes, the country has a CTO. President Barack Obama created the position in 2009; Kratsios is the fourth to hold the office and the first under President Donald Trump. He was confirmed in August.) Also speaking at the HAI conference, Kratsios argued:

“I don’t think we should be running to regulate anything. We are a leader [in technology] not because we had great regulations, but we have taken a free market approach. We have done great in driving innovation in technologies that are born free, like the Internet. Technologies born in captivity, like autonomous vehicles, lag behind.”

In the fictional world of HBO’s Silicon Valley, startup founder Hendricks has a solution—a technical one of course: the decentralized Internet. He tells Congress:

“The way we win is by creating a new, decentralized Internet, one where the behavior of companies like this will be impossible, forever. Where it is the users, not the kings, who have sovereign control over their data. I will help you build an Internet that is of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

(This is not a fictional concept, though it is a long way from wide use. Also called the decentralized Web, the concept takes the content on today’s Web and fragments it, and then replicates and scatters those fragments to hosts around the world, increasing privacy and reducing the ability of governments to restrict access.)

If neither regulation nor technology comes to make the world safe from the unforeseen effects of new technologies, there is one more hope, according to Schaake: the millennials and subsequent generations.

Tech companies can no longer pursue growth at all costs, not if they want to keep attracting the talent they need, says Schaake. She noted that, “the young generation looks at the environment, at homeless on the streets,” and they expect their companies to tackle those and other issues and make the world a better place. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435824 A Q&A with Cruise’s head of AI, ...

In 2016, Cruise, an autonomous vehicle startup acquired by General Motors, had about 50 employees. At the beginning of 2019, the headcount at its San Francisco headquarters—mostly software engineers, mostly working on projects connected to machine learning and artificial intelligence—hit around 1000. Now that number is up to 1500, and by the end of this year it’s expected to reach about 2000, sprawling into a recently purchased building that had housed Dropbox. And that’s not counting the 200 or so tech workers that Cruise is aiming to install in a Seattle, Wash., satellite development center and a handful of others in Phoenix, Ariz., and Pasadena, Calif.

Cruise’s recent hires aren’t all engineers—it takes more than engineering talent to manage operations. And there are hundreds of so-called safety drivers that are required to sit in the 180 or so autonomous test vehicles whenever they roam the San Francisco streets. But that’s still a lot of AI experts to be hiring in a time of AI engineer shortages.

Hussein Mehanna, head of AI/ML at Cruise, says the company’s hiring efforts are on track, due to the appeal of the challenge of autonomous vehicles in drawing in AI experts from other fields. Mehanna himself joined Cruise in May from Google, where he was director of engineering at Google Cloud AI. Mehanna had been there about a year and a half, a relatively quick career stop after a short stint at Snap following four years working in machine learning at Facebook.

Mehanna has been immersed in AI and machine learning research since his graduate studies in speech recognition and natural language processing at the University of Cambridge. I sat down with Mehanna to talk about his career, the challenges of recruiting AI experts and autonomous vehicle development in general—and some of the challenges specific to San Francisco. We were joined by Michael Thomas, Cruise’s manager of AI/ML recruiting, who had also spent time recruiting AI engineers at Google and then Facebook.

IEEE Spectrum: When you were at Cambridge, did you think AI was going to take off like a rocket?

Mehanna: Did I imagine that AI was going to be as dominant and prevailing and sometimes hyped as it is now? No. I do recall in 2003 that my supervisor and I were wondering if neural networks could help at all in speech recognition. I remember my supervisor saying if anyone could figure out how use a neural net for speech he would give them a grant immediately. So he was on the right path. Now neural networks have dominated vision, speech, and language [processing]. But that boom started in 2012.

“In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, it actually had a negative sentiment about researchers, and then Facebook shifted”

I didn’t [expect it], but I certainly aimed for it when [I was at] Microsoft, where I deliberately pushed my career towards machine learning instead of big data, which was more popular at the time. And [I aimed for it] when I joined Facebook.

In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, or researchers. It actually had a negative sentiment about researchers. And then Facebook shifted to becoming one of the key places where PhD students wanted to do internships or join after they graduated. It was a mindset shift, they were [once] at a point in time where they thought what was needed for success wasn’t research, but now it’s different.

There was definitely an element of risk [in taking a machine learning career path], but I was very lucky, things developed very fast.

IEEE Spectrum: Is it getting harder or easier to find AI engineers to hire, given the reported shortages?

Mehanna: There is a mismatch [between job openings and qualified engineers], though it is hard to quantify it with numbers. There is good news as well: I see a lot more students diving deep into machine learning and data in their [undergraduate] computer science studies, so it’s not as bleak as it seems. But there is massive demand in the market.

Here at Cruise, demand for AI talent is just growing and growing. It might be is saturating or slowing down at other kinds of companies, though, [which] are leveraging more traditional applications—ad prediction, recommendations—that have been out there in the market for a while. These are more mature, better understood problems.

I believe autonomous vehicle technologies is the most difficult AI problem out there. The magnitude of the challenge of these problems is 1000 times more than other problems. They aren’t as well understood yet, and they require far deeper technology. And also the quality at which they are expected to operate is off the roof.

The autonomous vehicle problem is the engineering challenge of our generation. There’s a lot of code to write, and if we think we are going to hire armies of people to write it line by line, it’s not going to work. Machine learning can accelerate the process of generating the code, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have engineers; we actually need a lot more engineers.

Sometimes people worry that AI is taking jobs. It is taking some developer jobs, but it is actually generating other developer jobs as well, protecting developers from the mundane and helping them build software faster and faster.

IEEE Spectrum: Are you concerned that the demand for AI in industry is drawing out the people in academia who are needed to educate future engineers, that is, the “eating the seed corn” problem?

Mehanna: There are some negative examples in the industry, but that’s not our style. We are looking for collaborations with professors, we want to cultivate a very deep and respectful relationship with universities.

And there’s another angle to this: Universities require a thriving industry for them to thrive. It is going to be extremely beneficial for academia to have this flourishing industry in AI, because it attracts more students to academia. I think we are doing them a fantastic favor by building these career opportunities. This is not the same as in my early days, [when] people told me “don’t go to AI; go to networking, work in the mobile industry; mobile is flourishing.”

IEEE Spectrum: Where are you looking as you try to find a thousand or so engineers to hire this year?

Thomas: We look for people who want to use machine learning to solve problems. They can be in many different industries—in the financial markets, in social media, in advertising. The autonomous vehicle industry is in its infancy. You can compare it to mobile in the early days: When the iPhone first came out, everyone was looking for developers with mobile experience, but you weren’t going to find them unless you went to straight to Apple, [so you had to hire other kinds of engineers]. This is the same type of thing: it is so new that you aren’t going to find experts in this area, because we are all still learning.

“You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move…now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.”

Mehanna: Because autonomous vehicle technology is the new frontier for AI experts, [the number of] people with both AI and autonomous vehicle experience is quite limited. So we are acquiring AI experts wherever they are, and helping them grow into the autonomous vehicle area. You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move; even though there is a lot of great tech developed, there’s even more innovation ahead, so now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems or applications to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.

It feels like the Internet in 1980. It’s about to happen, but there are endless applications [to be developed over] the next few decades. Even if we can get a car to drive safely, there is the question of how can we tune the ride comfort, and then applying it all to different cities, different vehicles, different driving situations, and who knows to what other applications.

I can see how I can spend a lifetime career trying to solve this problem.

IEEE Spectrum: Why are you doing most of your development in San Francisco?

Mehanna: I think the best talent of the world is in Silicon Valley, and solving the autonomous vehicle problem is going to require the best of the best. It’s not just the engineering talent that is here, but [also] the entrepreneurial spirit. Solving the problem just as a technology is not going to be successful, you need to solve the product and the technology together. And the entrepreneurial spirit is one of the key reasons Cruise secured 7.5 billion in funding [besides GM, the company has a number of outside investors, including Honda, Softbank, and T. Rowe Price]. That [funding] is another reason Cruise is ahead of many others, because this problem requires deep resources.

“If you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.”

[And then there is the driving environment.] When I speak to my peers in the industry, they have a lot of respect for us, because the problems to solve in San Francisco technically are an order of magnitude harder. It is a tight environment, with a lot of pedestrians, and driving patterns that, let’s put it this way, are not necessarily the best in the nation. Which means we are seeing more problems ahead of our competitors, which gets us to better [software]. I think if you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.

A version of this post appears in the September 2019 print magazine as “AI Engineers: The Autonomous-Vehicle Industry Wants You.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots