Artificial intelligence is frequently presented as an abstract demonic force that can do unforeseeable things. This view persists despite the fact that machine learning, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things and the feats of IBM’s computer Watson are the work of living brains, people who seek to make the world a better place, make humanity healthier and perhaps even extend human life.
Some of the persons I have described below have achieved a celebrity status that approximates that of rock stars. Others remain known only in the inner circles of their respective industries. The lineup I have prepared includes people who I believe will critically influence the future of technology, if not our entire civilization. I have long found them thoroughly fascinating. They intrigue me with their creative achievements and the way their careers have unfolded. The criteria I used to include them on my list were their popularity and how often they are mentioned in debates on new technologies. They are the ones who will be tackling the challenges and achieving the goals that today appear to be beyond human grasp.
Needless to say, the list is far from complete, as it could be extended to even a hundred of names. Note also that the order in which the names appear is accidental.
Elon Musk. Open AI
Musk is nearly an institution in his own right. He is most likely a workaholic, and certainly an entrepreneur committed to projects that others find extravagant. He entered the upper echelons of business through PayPal – an online payment platform acquired by eBay in 2002. His initial achievement was followed by others, attained with an equal if not greater flair. With SpaceX, Musk reached beyond Earth’s orbit. The company develops rockets and spacecraft which, as intended by its founder, make flights beyond the Earth’s orbit accessible to anyone who can afford to pay the price. Equally noteworthy is Solar City – the photovoltaic cell maker, Tesla Motors – the company that is out to revolutionize car travel, and the Hyperloop – a project that promises to reduce multi-hour journeys to short trips.
Against this background, Musk’s fascination with artificial intelligence comes as no surprise. His digital tech ideas open up a whole new business, cultural, intellectual and civilizational dimension. Musk just loves “cosmic-scale” challenges. It is therefore no wonder that he devotes a great deal of his time to artificial intelligence. His Open AI project may well lay the technological groundwork for AI and achieve what Tesla is doing in the automotive industry. Or at the very least become a key initiative in the field. In essence, Open AI is a for-profit institute dealing with many aspects of artificial intelligence, deploying technologies and popularizing the concept. Hence, in addition to providing freeware (dozens of software packages are already available), the company holds scientific conferences that bring together the business and engineering elites. Within its framework, programmers develop new codes while Musk himself conceives ideas for their marketing. After all, he is more of a practitioner than a theoretician. Artificial intelligence appeals to him not as a fad, but rather as a solution that will generate concrete returns. An example of its use is in Tesla’s autonomous vehicles, whose highly intelligent computers become fully-fledged road users, with all the accompanying implications.
One can hardly deny the role that Musk often plays as a mentor concerned with the fate of earthlings who are faced with the option of losing their freedom to digital entities. He is well posed to voice concerns, as he knows best what is brewing in his laboratories. Therefore, whenever he speaks, people listen.
Elon Musk: ‘Artificial Intelligence is Mankind’s Biggest Threat’
Ray Kurzweil, Google, Singularity University
Ray Kurzweil can confidently be described as an outstanding mentor, an authority and a theoretician regarding the birth and development of artificial intelligence. Kurzweil is a computer programmer, an inventor, an author and a futurologist. His experience and knowledge are so impressive they have caught the attention of Google management. Since 2012, he has been working for Google, running some of the grandest AI research projects. For many years, he has astonished people with controversial views and an innovative mindset. The latter manifested itself in his youth, when he made his name as a composer. The amazing part of this story is not that, as a teenager, Kurzweil displayed a musical talent. What wowed audiences was the artist’s admission that his piece was composed by… a computer.
As a grown-up futurologist, Kurzweil’s original claim to fame was his theory on artificial intelligence, which was one of the most original views on the topic. Referring to the law of accelerating returns, he concluded that, as a species, we have evolved to a tipping point which, if exceeded, will have serious consequences for humanity. Much publicity was received by his concept of the “singularity” which he defined in his now classic book The Singularity is Near. The term refers to a breakthrough in human development. We are nearing a point, predicted to come in 2030-2045, where the computational power of computers will be so gigantic that it will exceed the information processing capacity of the human brain. As a consequence, our way of life is set to change dramatically very soon. The changes will redefine our existential status. According to Kurzweil, as a species, we will evolve into a whole different creature. Merged with information technology, we will usher in an age of “trans-humans” in which man and machine will merge. Kurzweil has done a great deal to promote technological ideas. In 2009, in collaboration with Google and NASA, he established a futurology department at Singularity University in the Silicon Valley. Earlier, together with PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, he launched a series of annual conferences dubbed the Singularity Summit. He received multiple awards from prestigious universities and organizations across the world.
Ray Kurzweil: The Coming Singularity
Demis Hassabis. Deep Mind
Hassabis is a researcher, a talented chess player, a programmer and an author of popular computer games. As a doctoral student, he wrote dissertations in cognitive science, a field that combines cognitive psychology, neurobiology and artificial intelligence. It was his interest in science that led him to AI research. As a scholar, Hassabis dealt with memory, and particularly its damage and loss. One of the defining moments in his business career was his decision to set up, in 2010, the company DeepMind, with a mission to do research on artificial intelligence. Its founders focused on the key field that underpins AI, i.e. machine learning. The developer’s ambition was to marry neurobiology and IT (cognitive computing). All these fields are critical for the further development of technologies used in the broadly-based field of artificial intelligence. The DeepMind project produced algorithms that enabled a computer to play an Atari game by recognizing the graphics displayed on a monitor. The best-known DeepMind achievement was the spectacular victory of a computer in a match against masters of the Chinese game of Go. This traditional game, with millions of possible combinations of playing pieces, became an excellent testing ground for AI effectiveness. Further accomplishments followed the acquisition of DeepMind by Google, which provided a great deal of leeway to its researchers. Currently, DeepMind focuses on applying IT in medicine and continues to do research on machine learning.
Demis Hassabis, CEO, DeepMind Technologies – The Theory of Everything
Ginni Rometty, IBM
A true “star” among computers and an unmatched model for machines around the world is IBM’s Watson, of which I have written on several occasions. This incredibly intelligent machine has many powers: it can sift through complex information (from cooking recipes to intricate scientific concepts), analyze huge amounts of data stored in various formats, learn new things and ideas, acquire data and, most importantly, use natural language to communicate with users. It has proved its prowess in play. In 2011, IBM’s Watson beat two human champions of a popular general knowledge quiz on UK television. Of course, there is more to Watson’s story than this single triumph. IBM has declared its main plan was to apply the computer in medicine. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Watson’s commercial success did wonders to promote the machine. Yet neither the victory, nor the considerable fame that followed could ever have been achieved without Ginni Rometta, IBM’s current CEO. Ranked repeatedly among the world’s most influential people, she has shown exceptional marketing acumen. While until recently, notions such as machine learning and cognitive computing have only been understood by a narrow circle of IT experts, she chose to bring these ideas to the mainstream and capitalize on them. She may well soon earn credit for introducing machines such as IBM’s Watson to every hospital, school, research institute and enterprise in the world.
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty on Watson, “man and machine” era
Martin Ford, author
Although largely unknown in Poland, he gained worldwide recognition a few years ago owing in part to his numerous commentaries and articles in U.S. press.
Martin Ford comes from California, where he runs his IT business. Before making his name as an author, he spent over two decades writing computer code and developing software. This experience makes him highly knowledgeable about computers. Consequently, his reflections on the topic are more than the abstract musings of an intellectual.
Ford’s most successful book thus far is Rise of the Robots, which has made the New York Times bestseller list and been translated into 20 languages. In it, Ford takes a closer look at the anxieties troubling today’s civilization. His reflections center on the developments faced by many members of the middle class across the world, among them robotization, work automation and digitization.
Ford has realized that people are plagued by fears, some of them more groundless than others. The industrial revolution undermined the social and economic standings of traditional manual laborers. Assembly line manufacturing has put huge numbers of people out of jobs. The revolution driven by global digitization worries financial analysts, computer programmers, office workers, analysts and journalists. They are all finding that their jobs can be performed by machines, whose advantage is that they never complain, never get tired, never set up trade unions and never ask for a raise. Even today, many press agencies around the world use computers to produce reports. Hundreds of thousands of robots sort mail in Chinese warehouses. Robotic cameras reach where a surgeon’s eye could not… Should all this terrify us? Or are we to take a plunge into a reality offering new previously unknown opportunities? Ford’s answers are never conclusive, although he tends to be highly critical and generous with warnings. For the most part, though, he signals problems that are already here and are bound to hit us particularly hard five to ten years from now. In addition to the famous Rise of the Robots, Ford has also written The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future.
Martin Ford on the Rise of the Robots
So, these are my own subjective choices for “The Hall of Fame of Artificial Intelligence”. Who would you pick for that list? Write a comment.