Voices in AI – Episode 13: A Conversation with Bryan Catanzaro


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In this episode, Byron and Bryan talk about sentience, transfer learning, speech recognition, autonomous vehicles, and economic growth.




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Byron Reese: This is “Voices in AI” brought to you by Gigaom. I’m Byron Reese. Today, our guest is Bryan Catanzaro. He is the head of Applied AI Research at NVIDIA. He has a BS in computer science and Russian from BYU, an MS in electrical engineering from BYU, and a PhD in both electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley. Welcome to the show, Bryan.

Bryan Catanzaro: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Let’s start off with my favorite opening question. What is artificial intelligence?

It’s such a great question. I like to think about artificial intelligence as making tools that can perform intellectual work. Hopefully, those are useful tools that can help people be more productive in the things that they need to do. There’s a lot of different ways of thinking about artificial intelligence, and maybe the way that I’m talking about it is a little bit more narrow, but I think it’s also a little bit more connected with why artificial intelligence is changing so many companies and so many things about the way that we do things in the world economy today is because it actually is a practical thing that helps people be more productive in their work. We’ve been able to create industrialized societies with a lot of mechanization that help people do physical work. Artificial intelligence is making tools that help people do intellectual work.

I ask you what artificial intelligence is, and you said it’s doing intellectual work. That’s sort of using the word to define it, isn’t it? What is that? What is intelligence?

Yeah, wow…I’m not a philosopher, so I actually don’t have like a…

Let me try a different tact. Is it artificial in the sense that it isn’t really intelligent and it’s just pretending to be, or is it really smart? Is it actually intelligent and we just call it artificial because we built it?

I really liked this idea from Yuval Harari that I read a while back where he said there’s the difference between intelligence and sentience, where intelligence is more about the capacity to do things and sentience is more about being self-aware and being able to reason in the way that human beings reason. My belief is that we’re building increasingly intelligent systems that can perform what I would call intellectual work. Things about understanding data, understanding the world around us that we can measure with sensors like video cameras or audio or that we can write down in text, or record in some form. The process of interpreting that data and making decisions about what it means, that’s intellectual work, and that’s something that we can create machines to be more and more intelligent at. I think the definitions of artificial intelligence that move more towards consciousness and sentience, I think we’re a lot farther away from that as a community. There are definitely people that are super excited about making generally intelligent machines, but I think that’s farther away and I don’t know how to define what general intelligence is well enough to start working on that problem myself. My work focuses mostly on practical things—helping computers understand data and make decisions about it.

Fair enough. I’ll only ask you one more question along those lines. I guess even down in narrow AI, though, if I had a sprinkler that comes on when my grass gets dry, it’s responding to its environment. Is that an AI?

I’d say it’s a very small form of AI. You could have a very smart sprinkler that was better than any person at figuring out when the grass needed to be watered. It could take into account all sorts of sensor data. It could take into account historical information. It might actually be more intelligent at figuring out how to irrigate than a human would be. And that’s a very narrow form of intelligence, but it’s a useful one. So yeah, I do think that could be considered a form of intelligence. Now it’s not philosophizing about the nature of irrigation and its harm on the planet or the history of human interventions on the world, or anything like that. So it’s very narrow, but it’s useful, and it is intelligent in its own way.

Fair enough. I do want to talk about AGI in a little while. I have some questions around…We’ll come to that in just a moment. Just in the narrow AI world, just in your world of using data and computers to solve problems, if somebody said, “Bryan, what is the state-of-the-art? Where are we at in AI? Is this the beginning and you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet’? Or are we really doing a lot of cool things, and we are well underway to mastering that world?”

I think we’re just at the beginning. We’ve seen so much progress over the past few years. It’s been really quite astonishing, the kind of progress we’ve seen in many different domains. It all started out with image recognition and speech recognition, but it’s gone a long way from there. A lot of the products that we interact with on a daily basis over the internet are using AI, and they are providing value to us. They provide our social media feeds, they provide recommendations and maps, they provide conversational interfaces like Siri or Android Assistant. All of those things are powered by AI and they are definitely providing value, but we’re still just at the beginning. There are so many things we don’t know yet how to do and so many underexplored problems to look at. So I believe we’ll continue to see applications of AI come up in new places for quite a while to come.

If I took a little statuette of a falcon, let’s say it’s a foot tall, and I showed it to you, and then I showed you some photographs, and said, “Spot the falcon.” And half the time it’s sticking halfway behind a tree, half the time it’s underwater; one time it’s got peanut butter smeared on it. A person can do that really well, but computers are far away from that. Is that an example of us being really good at transfer learning? We’re used to knowing what things with peanut butter on them look like? What is it that people are doing that computers are having a hard time to do there?

I believe that people have evolved, over a very long period of time, to operate on planet Earth with the sensors that we have. So we have a lot of built-in knowledge that tells us how to process the sensors that we have and models the world. A lot of it is instinctual, and some of it is learned. I have young children, like a year-old or so. They spend an awful lot of time just repetitively probing the world to see how it’s going to react when they do things, like pushing on a string, or a ball, and they do it over and over again because I think they’re trying to build up their models about the world. We have actually very sophisticated models of the world that maybe we take for granted sometimes because everyone seems to get them so easily. It’s not something that you have to learn in school. But these models are actually quite useful, and they’re more sophisticated than – and more general than – the models that we currently can build with today’s AI technology.

To your question about transfer learning, I feel like we’re really good at transfer learning within the domain of things that our eyes can see on planet Earth. There are probably a lot of situations where an AI would be better at transfer learning. Might actually have fewer assumptions baked in about how the world is structured, how objects look, what kind of composition of objects is actually permissible. I guess I’m just trying to say we shouldn’t forget that we come with a lot of context. That’s instinctual, and we use that, and it’s very sophisticated.

Do you take from that that we ought to learn how to embody an AI and just let it wander around the world, bumping into things and poking at them and all of that? Is that what you’re saying? How do we overcome that?

It’s an interesting question you note. I’m not personally working on trying to build artificial general intelligence, but it will be interesting for those people that are working on it to see what kind of childhood is necessary for an AI. I do think that childhood is a really important part of developing human intelligence, and plays a really important part of developing human intelligence because it helps us build and calibrate these models of how the world works, which then we apply to all sorts of things like your question of the falcon statue. Will computers need things like that? It’s possible. We’ll have to see. I think one of the things that’s different about computers is that they’re a lot better at transmitting information identically, so it may be the kind of thing that we can train once, and then just use repeatedly – as opposed to people, where the process of replicating a person is time-consuming and not exact.

But that transfer learning problem isn’t really an AGI problem at all, though. Right? We’ve taught a computer to recognize a cat, by giving it a gazillion images of a cat. But if we want to teach it how to recognize a bird, we have to start over, don’t we?

I don’t think we generally start over. I think most of the time if people wanted to create a new classifier, they would use transfer learning from an existing classifier that had been trained on a wide variety of different object types. It’s actually not very hard to do that, and people do that successfully all the time. So at least for image recognition, I think transfer learning works pretty well. For other kinds of domains, they can be a little bit more challenging. But at least for image recognition, we’ve been able to find a set of higher-level features that are very useful in discriminating between all sorts of different kinds of objects, even objects that we haven’t seen before.

What about audio? Because I’m talking to you now and I’m snapping my fingers. You don’t have any trouble continuing to hear me, but a computer trips over that. What do you think is going on in people’s minds? Why are we good at that, do you think? To get back to your point about we live on Earth, it’s one of those Earth things we do. But as a general rule, how do we teach that to a computer? Is that the same as teaching it to see something, as to teach it to hear something?

I think it’s similar. The best speech recognition accuracies come from systems that have been trained on huge amounts of data, and there does seem to be a relationship that the more data we can train a model on, the better the accuracy gets. We haven’t seen the end of that yet. I’m pretty excited about the prospects of being able to teach computers to continually understand audio, better and better. However, I wanted to point out, humans, this is kind of our superpower: conversation and communication. You watch birds flying in a flock, and the birds can all change direction instantaneously, and the whole flock just moves, and you’re like, “How do you do that and not run into each other?” They have a lot of built-in machinery that allows them to flock together. Humans have a lot of built-in machinery for conversation and for understanding spoken language. The pathways for speaking and the pathways for hearing evolve together, so they’re really well-matched.

With computers trying to understand audio, we haven’t gotten to that point yet. I remember some of the experiments that I’ve done in the past with speech recognition, that the recognition performance was very sensitive to compression artifacts that were actually not audible to humans. We could actually take a recording, like this one, and recompress it in a way that sounded identical to a person, and observe a measurable difference in the recognition accuracy of our model. That was a little disconcerting because we’re trying to train the model to be invariant to all the things that humans are invariant to, but it’s actually quite hard to do that. We certainly haven’t achieved that yet. Often, our models are still what we would call “overfitting”, where they’re paying attention to a lot of details that help it perform the tasks that we’re asking it to perform, but they’re not actually helpful to solving the fundamental tasks that we’re trying to perform. And we’re continually trying to improve our understanding of the tasks that we’re solving so that we can avoid this, but we’ve still got more work to do.

My standard question when I’m put in front of a chatbot or one of the devices that sits on everybody’s desktop, I can’t say them out loud because they’ll start talking to me right now, but the question I always ask is “What is bigger, a nickel or the sun?” To date, nothing has ever been able to answer that question. It doesn’t know how sun is spelled. “Whose son? The sun? Nickel? That’s actually a coin.” All of that. What all do we have to get good at, for the computer to answer that question? Run me down the litany of all the things we can’t do, or that we’re not doing well yet, because there’s no system I’ve ever tried that answered that correctly.

I think one of the things is that we’re typically not building chat systems to answer trivia questions just like that. I think if we were building a special-purpose trivia system for questions like that, we probably could answer it. IBM Watson did pretty well on Jeopardy, because it was trained to answer questions like that. I think we definitely have the databases, the knowledge bases, to answer questions like that. The problem is that kind of a question is really outside of the domain of most of the personal assistants that are being built as products today because honestly, trivia bots are fun, but they’re not as useful as a thing that can set a timer, or check the weather, or play a song. So those are mostly the things that those systems are focused on.

Fair enough, but I would differ. You can go to Wolfram Alpha and say, “What’s bigger, the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building?” and it’ll answer that. And you can ask Amazon’s product that same question, and it’ll answer it. Is that because those are legit questions and my question is not legit, or is it because we haven’t taught systems to disintermediate very well and so they don’t really know what I mean when I say “sun”?

I think that’s probably the issue. There’s a language modeling problem when you say, “What’s bigger, a nickel or the sun?” The sun can mean so many different things, like you were saying. Nickel, actually, can be spelled a couple of different ways and has a couple of different meanings. Dealing with ambiguities like that is a little bit hard. I think when you ask that question to me, I categorize this as a trivia question, and so I’m able to disambiguate all of those things, and look up the answer in my little knowledge base in my head, and answer your question. But I actually don’t think that particular question is impossible to solve. I just think it’s just not been a focus to try to solve stuff like that, and that’s why they’re not good.

AIs have done a really good job playing games: Deep Blue, Watson, AlphaGo, and all of that. I guess those are constrained environments with a fixed set of rules, and it’s easy to understand who wins, and what a point is, and all that. What is going to be the next thing, that’s a watershed event, that happens? Now they can outbluff people in poker. What’s something that’s going to be, in a year, or two years, five years down the road, that one day, it wasn’t like that in the universe, and the next day it was? And the next day, the best Go player in the world was a machine.

The thing that’s on my mind for that right now is autonomous vehicles. I think it’s going to change the world forever to unchain people from the driver’s seat. It’s going to give people hugely increased mobility. I have relatives that their doctors have asked them to stop driving cars because it’s no longer safe for them to be doing that, and it restricts their ability to get around the world, and that frustrates them. It’s going to change the way that we all live. It’s going to change the real estate markets, because we won’t have to park our cars in the same places that we’re going to. It’s going to change some things about the economy, because there’s going to be new delivery mechanisms that will become economically viable. I think intelligence that can help robots essentially drive around the roads, that’s the next thing that I’m most excited about, that I think is really going to change everything.

We’ll come to that in just a minute, but I’m actually asking…We have self-driving cars, and on an evolutionary basis, they’ll get a little better and a little better. You’ll see them more and more, and then someday there’ll be even more of them, and then they’ll be this and this and this. It’s not that surprise moment, though, of AlphaGo just beat Lee Sedol at Go. I’m wondering if there is something else like that—that it’s this binary milestone that we can all keep our eye open for?

I don’t know. As far as we have self-driving cars already, I don’t have a self-driving car that could say, for example, let me sit in it at nighttime, go to sleep and wake up, and it brought me to Disneyland. I would like that kind of self-driving car, but that car doesn’t exist yet. I think self-driving trucks that can go cross country carrying stuff, that’s going to radically change the way that we distribute things. I do think that we have, as you said, we’re on the evolutionary path to self-driving cars, but there’s going to be some discrete moments when people actually start using them to do new things that will feel pretty significant.

As far as games and stuff, and computers being better at games than people, it’s funny because I feel like Silicon Valley has, sometimes, a very linear idea of intelligence. That one person is smarter than another person maybe because of an SAT score, or an IQ test, or something. They use that sort of linearity of an intelligence to where some people feel threatened by artificial intelligence because they extrapolate that artificial intelligence is getting smarter and smarter along this linear scale, and that’s going to lead to all sorts of surprising things, like Lee Sedol losing to Go, but on a much bigger scale for all of us. I feel kind of the opposite. Intelligence is such a multidimensional thing. The fact that a computer is better at Go then I am doesn’t really change my life very much, because I’m not very good at Go. I don’t play Go. I don’t consider Go to be an important part of my intelligence. Same with chess. When Gary Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, that didn’t threaten my intelligence. I am sort of defining the way that I work and how I add value to the world, and what things make me happy on a lot of other axes besides “Can I play chess?” or “Can I play Go?” I think that speaks to the idea that intelligence really is very multifaceted. There’s a lot of different kinds – there’s probably thousands or millions of different kinds of intelligence – and it’s not very linearizable.

Because of that, I feel like, as we watch artificial intelligence develop, we’re going to see increasingly more intelligent machines, but they’re going to be increasingly more intelligent in some very narrow domains like “this is the better Go-playing robot than me”, or “this is the better car driver than me”. That’s going to be incredibly useful, but it’s not going to change the way that I think about myself, or about my work, or about what makes me happy. Because I feel like there are so many more dimensions of intelligence that are going to remain the province of humans. That’s going to take a very long time, if ever, for artificial intelligence to become better at all of them than us. Because, as I said, I don’t believe that intelligence is a linearizable thing.

And you said you weren’t a philosopher. I guess the thing that’s interesting to people, is there was a time when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse. And then the train came along, and information could travel. That’s why in the old Westerns – if they ever made it on the train, that was it, and they were out of range. Nothing traveled faster than the train. Then we had a telegraph and, all of a sudden, that was this amazing thing that information could travel at the speed of light. And then one time they ran these cables under the ocean, and somebody in England could talk to somebody in the United States instantly. Each one of them, and I think it’s just an opportunity to pause, and reflect, and to mark a milestone, and to think about what it all means. I think that’s why a computer just beat these awesome poker players. It learned to bluff. You just kind of want to think about it.

So let’s talk about jobs for a moment because you’ve been talking around that for just a second. Just to set the question up: Generally speaking, there are three views of what automation and artificial intelligence are going to do to jobs. One of them reflects kind of what you were saying is that there are going to be a certain group of workers who are considered low skilled, and there are going to be automation that takes these low-skilled jobs, and that there’s going to be a sizable part of the population that’s locked out of the labor market, and it’s kind of like the permanent Great Depression over and over and over forever. Then there’s another view that says, “No, you don’t understand. There’s going to be an inflection point where they can do every single thing. They’re going to be a better conductor and a better painter and a better novelist and a better everything than us. Don’t think that you’ve got something that a machine can’t do.” Clearly, that isn’t your viewpoint from what you said. Then there’s a third viewpoint that says, “No, in the past, even when we had these transformative technologies like electricity and mechanization, people take those technologies and they use them to increase their own productivity and, therefore, their own incomes. And you never have unemployment go up because of them, because people just take it and make a new job with it.” Of those three, or maybe a fourth one I didn’t cover; where do you find yourself?

I feel like I’m closer in spirit to number three. I’m optimistic. I believe that the primary way that we should expect economic growth in the future is by increased productivity. If you buy a house or buy some stock and you want to sell it 20 or 30 years from now, who’s going to buy it, and with what money, and why do you expect the price to go up? I think the answer to that question should be the people in the future should have more money than us because they’re more productive, and that’s why we should expect our world economy to continue growing. Because we find more productivity. I actually feel like this is actually necessary. World productivity growth has been slowing for the past several decades, and I feel like artificial intelligence is our way out of this trap where we have been unable to figure out how to grow our economy because our productivity hasn’t been improving. I actually feel like this is a necessary thing for all of us, is to figure out how to improve productivity, and I think AI is the way that we’re going to do that for the next several decades.

The one thing that I disagreed with in your third statement was this idea that unemployment would never go up. I think nothing is ever that simple. I actually am quite concerned about job displacement in the short-term. I think there will be people that suffer and in fact, I think, to a certain extent, this is already happening. The election of Donald Trump was an eye-opener to me that there really exists a lot of people that feel that they have been left behind by the economy, and they come to very different conclusions about the world than I might. I think that it’s possible that, as we continue to digitize our society, and AI becomes a lever that some people will become very good at using to increase their productivity, that we’re going to see increased inequality and that worries me.

The primary challenges that I’m worried about, for our society, with the rise of AI, have to do more with making sure that we give people purpose and meaning in their life that maybe doesn’t necessarily revolve around punching out a timecard, and showing up to work at 8 o’clock in the morning every day. I want to believe that that future exists. There are a lot of people right now that are brilliant people that have a lot that they could be contributing in many different ways – intellectually, artistically – that are currently not given that opportunity, because they maybe grew up in a place that didn’t have the right opportunities for them to get the right education so that they could apply their skills in that way, and many of them are doing jobs that I think don’t allow them to use their full potential.

So I’m hoping that, as we automate many of those jobs, that more people will be able to find work that provides meaning and purpose to them and allows them to actually use their talents and make the world a better place, but I acknowledge that it’s not going to be an easy transition. I do think that there’s going to be a lot of implications for how our government works and how our economy works, and I hope that we can figure out a way to help defray some of the pain that will happen during this transition.

You talked about two things. You mentioned income inequality as a thing, but then you also said, “I think we’re going to have unemployment from these technologies.” Separating those for a minute and just looking at the unemployment one for a minute, you say things are never that simple. But with the exception of the Great Depression, which nobody believes was caused by technology, unemployment has been between 5% and 10% in this country for 250 years and it only moves between 5% and 10% because of the business cycle, but there aren’t counterexamples. Just imagine if your job was you had animals that performed physical labor. They pulled, and pushed, and all of that. And somebody made the steam engine. That was disruptive. But even when we had that, we had electrification of industry. We adopted steam power. We went from 5% to 85% of our power being generated by steam in just 22 years. And even when you had that kind of disruption, you still didn’t have any increases in unemployment. I’m curious, what is the mechanism, in your mind, by which this time is different?

I think that’s a good point that you raise, and I actually haven’t studied all of those other transitions that our society has gone through. I’d like to believe that it’s not different. That would be a great story if we could all come to agreement, that we won’t see increased unemployment from AI. I think the reason why I’m a little bit worried is that I think this transition in some fields will happen quickly, maybe more quickly than some of the transitions in the past did. Just because, as I was saying, AI is easier to replicate than some other technologies, like electrification of a country. It takes a lot of time to build out physical infrastructure that can actually deliver that. Whereas I think for a lot of AI applications, that infrastructure will be cheaper and quicker to build, so the velocity of the change might be faster and that could lead to a little bit more shock. But it’s an interesting point you raise, and I certainly hope that we can find a way through this transition that is less painful than I’m worried it could be.

Do you worry about misuse of AI? I’m an optimist on all of this. And I know that every time we have some new technology come along, people are always looking at the bad cases. You take something like the internet, and the internet has overwhelmingly been a force for good. It connects people in a profound way. There’s a million things. And yeah, some people abuse it. But on net, all technology, I believe, almost all technology on net is used for good because I think, on net, people, on average, are more inclined to build than to destroy. That being said, do you worry about nefarious uses of AI, specifically in warfare?

Yeah. I think that there definitely are going to be some scary killer robots that armies make. Armies love to build machinery that kills things and AI will help them do that, and that will be scary. I think it’s interesting, like, where is the real threat going to come from? Sometimes, I feel like the threat of malevolent AI being deployed against people is going to be more subtle than that. It’s going to be more about things that you can do after compromising fiber systems of some adversary, and things that you can do to manipulate them using AI. There’s been a lot of discussion about Russian involvement in the 2016 election in the US, and that wasn’t about sending evil killer robots. It was more about changing people’s opinions, or attempting to change their opinions, and AI will give entities tools to do that on a scale that maybe we haven’t seen before. I think there may be nefarious uses of AI that are more subtle and harder to see than a full-frontal assault from a movie with evil killer robots. I do worry about all of those things, but I also share your optimism. I think we humans, we make lots of mistakes and we shouldn’t give ourselves too easy of a time here. We should learn from those mistakes, but we also do a lot of things well. And we have used technologies in the past to make the world better, and I hope AI will do so as well.

Pedro Domingo wrote a book called The Master Algorithm where he says there are all of these different tools and techniques that we use in artificial intelligence. And he surmises that there is probably a grandparent algorithm, the master algorithm, that can solve any problem, any range of problems. Does that seem possible to you or likely, or do you have any thoughts on that?

I think it’s a little bit far away, at least from AI as it’s practiced today. Right now, the practical, on-the-ground experience of researchers trying to use AI to do something new is filled with a lot of pain, suffering, blood, sweat, tears, and perseverance if they are to succeed, and I see that in my lab every day. Most of the researchers – and I have brilliant researchers in my lab that are working very hard, and they’re doing amazing work. And most of the things they try fail. And they have to keep trying. I think that’s generally the case right now across all the people that are working on AI. The thing that’s different is we’ve actually started to see some big successes, along with all of those more frustrating everyday occurrences. So I do think that we’re making the progress, but I think having a master algorithm that’s pushbutton that can solve any problem you pose to it that’s something that’s hard for me to conceive of with today’s state of artificial intelligence.

AI, of course, it’s doubtful we’ll have another AI winter because, like you said, it’s kind of delivering the goods, and there have been three things that have happened that made that possible. One of them is better hardware, and obviously you’re part of that world. The second thing is better algorithms. We’ve learned to do things a lot smarter. And the third thing is we have more data, because we are able to collect it, and store it, and whatnot. Assuming you think the hardware is the biggest of the driving factors, what would you think has been the bigger advance? Is it that we have so much more data, or so much better algorithms?

I think the most important thing is more data. I think the algorithms that we’re using in AI right now are, more or less, clever variations of algorithms that have been around for decades, and used to not work. When I was a PhD student and I was studying AI, all the smart people told me, “Don’t work with deep learning, because it doesn’t work. Use this other algorithm called support vector machines.” Which, at the time, that was the hope that that was going to be the master algorithm. So I stayed away from deep learning back then because, at the time, it didn’t work. I think now we have so much more data, and deep learning models have been so successful at taking advantage of that data, that we’ve been able to make a lot of progress. I wouldn’t characterize deep learning as a master algorithm, though, because deep learning is like a fuzzy cloud of things that have some relationships to each other, but actually finding a space inside that fuzzy cloud to solve a particular problem requires a lot of human ingenuity.

Is there a phrase – it’s such a jargon-loaded industry now – are there any of the words that you just find rub you the wrong way? Because they don’t mean anything and people use them as if they do? Do you have anything like that?

Everybody has pet peeves. I would say that my biggest pet peeve right now is the word neuromorphic. I have almost an allergic reaction every time I hear that word, mostly because I don’t think we know what neurons are or what they do, and I think modeling neurons in a way that actually could lead to brain simulations that actually worked is a very long project that we’re decades away from solving. I could be wrong on that. I’m always waiting for somebody to prove me wrong. Strong opinions, weakly held. But so far, neuromorphic is a word that I just have an allergic reaction to, every time.

Tell me about what you do. You are the head of Applied AI Research at NVIDIA, so what does your day look like? What does your team work on? What’s your biggest challenge right now, and all of that?

NVIDIA sells GPUs which have powered most of the deep learning revolution, so pretty much all of the work that’s going on with deep learning across the entire world right now, runs on NVIDIA GPUs. And that’s been very exciting for NVIDIA, and exciting for me to be involved in building that. The next step, I think, for NVIDIA is to figure out how to use AI to change the way that it does its own work. NVIDIA is incentivized to do this because we see the value that AI is bringing to our customers. Our GPU sales have been going up quite a bit because we’re providing a lot of value to everyone else who’s trying to use AI for their own problems. So the next step is to figure out how to use AI for NVIDIA’s problems directly. Andrew Ng, who I used to work with, has this great quote that “AI is the new electricity,” and I believe that. I think that we’re going to see AI applied in many different ways to many different kinds of problems, and my job at NVIDIA is to figure out how to do that here. So that’s what my team focuses on.

We have projects going on in quite a few different domains, ranging from graphics to audio, and text, and others. We’re trying to change the way that everything at NVIDIA happens: from chip design, to video games, and everything in between. As far as my day-to-day work goes, I lead this team, so that means I spend a lot of time talking with people on the team about the work that they’re doing, and trying to make sure they have the right resources, data, the right hardware, the right ideas, the right connections, so that they can make progress on problems that they’re trying to solve. Then when we have prototypes that we’ve built showing how to apply AI to a particular problem, then I work with people around the company to show them the promise of AI applied to problems that they care about.

I think one of the things that’s really exciting to me about this mission is that we’re really trying to change NVIDIA’s work at the core of the company. So rather than working on applied AI, that could maybe help some peripheral part of the company that maybe could be nice if we did that, we’re actually trying to solve very fundamental problems that the company faces with AI, and hopefully we’ll be able to change the way that the company does business, and transform NVIDIA into an AI company, and not just a company that makes hardware for AI.

You are the head of the Applied AI Research. Is there a Pure AI Research group, as well?

Yes, there is.

So everything you do, you have an internal customer for already?

That’s the idea. To me, the difference between fundamental research and applied research is more a question of emphasis on what’s the fundamental goal of your work. If the goal is academic novelty, that would be fundamental research. Our goal is, we think about applications all the time, and we don’t work on problems unless we have a clear application that we’re trying to build that could use a solution.

In most cases, do other groups come to you and say, “We have this problem we really want to solve. Can you help us?” Or is the science nascent enough that you go and say, “Did you know that we can actually solve this problem for you?”

It kind of works all of those ways. We have a list of projects that people around the company have proposed to us, and we also have a list of projects that we ourselves think are interesting to look at. There’s also a few projects that my management tells me, “I really want you to look at this problem. I think it’s really important.” We get input from all directions, and then prioritize, and go after the ones we think are most feasible, and most important.

And do you find a talent shortage? You’re NVIDIA on the one hand, but on the other hand, you know: it’s AI.

I think the entire field, no matter what company you work at, the entire field has a shortage of qualified scientists that can do AI research, and that’s despite the fact that the amount of people jumping into AI is increasing every year. If you go to any of the academic AI conferences, you’ll see how much energy and how much excitement, and how many people that are there that didn’t used to be there. That’s really wonderful to see. But even with all of that growth and change, it is a big problem for the industry. So, to all of your listeners that are trying to figure out what to do next, come work on AI. We have lots of fun problems to work on, and not nearly enough people doing it.

I know a lot of your projects I’m sure you can’t talk about, but tell me something you have done, that you can talk about, and what the goal was, and what you were able to achieve. Give us a success story.

I’ll give you one that’s relevant to the last question that you asked, which is about how to find talent for AI. We’ve actually built a system that can match candidates to job openings at NVIDIA. Basically, it can predict how well we think a particular candidate is a fit for a particular job. That system is actually performing pretty well. So we’re trialing it with hiring managers around the company to figure out if it can help them be more efficient in their work as they search for people to come join NVIDIA.

That looks like a game, isn’t it? I assume you have a pool of resumes or LinkedIn profiles or whatever, and then you have a pool of successful employees, and you have a pool of job descriptions and you’re trying to say, “How can I pull from that big pool, based on these job descriptions, and actually pick the people that did well in the end?”

That’s right.

That’s like a game, right? You have points.

That’s right.

Would you ever productize anything, or is everything that you’re doing just for your own use?

We focus primarily on building prototypes, not products, in my team. I think that’s what the research is about. Once we build a prototype that shows promise for a particular problem, then we work with other people in the company to get that actually deployed, and they would be the people that think about business strategy about whether something should be productized, or not.

But you, in theory, might turn “NVIDIA Resume Pro” into something people could use?

Possibly. NVIDIA also works with a lot of other companies. As we enable companies in many different parts of the economy to apply AI to their problems, we work with them to help them do that. So it might make more sense for us, for example, to deliver this prototype to some of our partners that are in a position to deliver products like this more directly, and then they can figure out how to enlarge its capabilities, and make it more general to try to solve bigger problems that address their whole market and not just one company’s needs. Partnering with other companies is good for NVIDIA because it helps us grow AI which is something we want to do because, as AI grows, we grow. Personally, I think some of the things that we’re working on; it just doesn’t really make sense. It’s not really in NVIDIA’s DNA to productize them directly because it’s just not the business model that the company has.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the “right to know” legislation in Europe: the idea that if an AI makes a decision about you, you have a right to know why it made that decision. AI researchers are like, “It’s not necessarily that easy to do that.” So in your case, your AI would actually be subject to that. It would say, “Why did you pick that person over this person for that job?” Is that an answerable question?

First of all, I don’t think that this system – or I can’t imagine – using it to actually make hiring decisions. I think that would be irresponsible. This system makes mistakes. What we’re trying to do is improve productivity. If instead of having to sort through 200 resumes to find 3 that I want to talk to—if I can look at 10 instead—then that’s a pretty good improvement in my productivity, but I’m still going to be involved, as a hiring manager, to figure out who is the right fit for my jobs.

But an AI excluded 190 people from that position.

It didn’t exclude them. It sorted them, and then the person decided how to allocate their time in a search.

Let’s look at the problem more abstractly. What do you think, just in general, about the idea that every decision an AI makes, should be, and can be, explained?

I think it’s a little bit utopian. Certainly, I don’t have the ability to explain all of the decisions that I make, and people, generally, are not very good at explaining their decisions, which is why there are significant legal battles going on about factual things, that people see in different ways, and remember in different ways. So asking a person to explain their intent is actually a very complicated thing, and we’re not actually very good at it. So I don’t actually think that we’re going to be able to enforce that AI is able to explain all of its decisions in a way that makes sense to humans. I do think that there are things that we can do to make the results of these systems more interpretable. For example, on the resume job description matching system that I mentioned earlier, we’ve built a prototype that can highlight parts of the resume that were most interesting to the model, both in a positive, and in a negative sense. That’s a baby step towards interpretability so that if you were to pull up that job description and a particular person and you could see how they matched, that might explain to you what the model was paying attention to as it made a ranking.

It’s funny because when you hear reasons why people exclude a resume, I remember one person said, “I’m not going to hire him. He has the same first name as somebody else on the team. That’d just be too confusing.” And somebody else I remember said that the applicant was a vegan and the place they like to order pizza from didn’t have a vegan alternative that the team liked to order from. Those are anecdotal of course, but people use all kinds of other things when they’re thinking about it.

Yeah. That’s actually one of the reasons why I’m excited about this particular system is that I feel like we should be able to construct it in a way that actually has fewer biases than people do, because we know that people harbor all sorts of biases. We have employment laws that guide us to stay away from making decisions based on protected classes. I don’t know if veganism is a protected class, but it’s verging on that. If you’re making hiring decisions based on people’s personal lifestyle choices, that’s suspect. You could get in trouble for that. Our models, we should be able to train them to be more dispassionate than any human could be.

We’re running out of time. Let’s close up by: do you consume science fiction? Do you ever watch movies or read books or any of that? And if so, is there any of it that you look at, especially any that portrays artificial intelligence, like Ex Machina, or Her, or Westworld or any of that stuff, that you look at and you’re like, “Wow, that’s really interesting,” or “That could happen,” or “That’s fascinating,” or anything like that?

I do consume science fiction. I love science fiction. I don’t actually feel like current science fiction matches my understanding of AI very well. Ex Machina, for example, that was a fun movie. I enjoyed watching that movie, but I felt, from a scientific point of view, it just wasn’t very interesting. I was talking about our built-in models of the world. One of the things that humans, over thousands of years, have drilled into our heads is that there’s somebody out to get you. We have a large part of our brain that’s worrying all the time, like, “Who’s going to come kill me tonight? Who’s going to take away my job? Who’s going to take my food? Who’s going to burn down my house?” There’s all these things that we worry about. So a lot of the depictions of AI in science fiction inflame that part of the brain that is worrying about the future, rather than actually speak to the technology and its potential.

I think probably the part of science fiction that has had the most impact on my thoughts about AI is Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws. Those, I think, are pretty classic, and I hope that some of them can be adapted to the kinds of problems that we’re trying to solve with AI, to make AI safe, and make it possible for people to feel confident that they’re interacting with AI, and not worry about it. But I feel like most of science fiction is, especially movies – maybe books can be a little bit more intellectual and maybe a little bit more interesting – but especially movies, it just sells more movies to make people afraid, than it does to show people a mundane existence where AI is helping people live better lives. It’s just not nearly as compelling of a movie, so I don’t actually feel like popular culture treatment of AI is very realistic.

All right. Well, on that note, I say, we wrap up. I want to thank you for a great hour. We covered a lot of ground, and I appreciate you traveling all that way with me.

It was fun.

Byron explores issues around artificial intelligence and conscious computers in his upcoming book The Fourth Age, to be published in April by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Pre-order a copy here. 

Byron Reese: This is “Voices in AI” brought to you by Gigaom. I’m Byron Reese. Today, our guest is Bryan Catanzaro. He is the head of Applied AI Research at NVIDIA. He has a BS in computer science and Russian from BYU, an MS in electrical engineering from BYU, and a PhD in both electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley. Welcome to the show, Bryan.

Bryan Catanzaro: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Let’s start off with my favorite opening question. What is artificial intelligence?

It’s such a great question. I like to think about artificial intelligence as making tools that can perform intellectual work. Hopefully, those are useful tools that can help people be more productive in the things that they need to do. There’s a lot of different ways of thinking about artificial intelligence, and maybe the way that I’m talking about it is a little bit more narrow, but I think it’s also a little bit more connected with why artificial intelligence is changing so many companies and so many things about the way that we do things in the world economy today is because it actually is a practical thing that helps people be more productive in their work. We’ve been able to create industrialized societies with a lot of mechanization that help people do physical work. Artificial intelligence is making tools that help people do intellectual work.

I ask you what artificial intelligence is, and you said it’s doing intellectual work. That’s sort of using the word to define it, isn’t it? What is that? What is intelligence?

Yeah, wow…I’m not a philosopher, so I actually don’t have like a…

Let me try a different tact. Is it artificial in the sense that it isn’t really intelligent and it’s just pretending to be, or is it really smart? Is it actually intelligent and we just call it artificial because we built it?

I really liked this idea from Yuval Harari that I read a while back where he said there’s the difference between intelligence and sentience, where intelligence is more about the capacity to do things and sentience is more about being self-aware and being able to reason in the way that human beings reason. My belief is that we’re building increasingly intelligent systems that can perform what I would call intellectual work. Things about understanding data, understanding the world around us that we can measure with sensors like video cameras or audio or that we can write down in text, or record in some form. The process of interpreting that data and making decisions about what it means, that’s intellectual work, and that’s something that we can create machines to be more and more intelligent at. I think the definitions of artificial intelligence that move more towards consciousness and sentience, I think we’re a lot farther away from that as a community. There are definitely people that are super excited about making generally intelligent machines, but I think that’s farther away and I don’t know how to define what general intelligence is well enough to start working on that problem myself. My work focuses mostly on practical things—helping computers understand data and make decisions about it.

Fair enough. I’ll only ask you one more question along those lines. I guess even down in narrow AI, though, if I had a sprinkler that comes on when my grass gets dry, it’s responding to its environment. Is that an AI?

I’d say it’s a very small form of AI. You could have a very smart sprinkler that was better than any person at figuring out when the grass needed to be watered. It could take into account all sorts of sensor data. It could take into account historical information. It might actually be more intelligent at figuring out how to irrigate than a human would be. And that’s a very narrow form of intelligence, but it’s a useful one. So yeah, I do think that could be considered a form of intelligence. Now it’s not philosophizing about the nature of irrigation and its harm on the planet or the history of human interventions on the world, or anything like that. So it’s very narrow, but it’s useful, and it is intelligent in its own way.

Fair enough. I do want to talk about AGI in a little while. I have some questions around…We’ll come to that in just a moment. Just in the narrow AI world, just in your world of using data and computers to solve problems, if somebody said, “Bryan, what is the state-of-the-art? Where are we at in AI? Is this the beginning and you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet’? Or are we really doing a lot of cool things, and we are well underway to mastering that world?”

I think we’re just at the beginning. We’ve seen so much progress over the past few years. It’s been really quite astonishing, the kind of progress we’ve seen in many different domains. It all started out with image recognition and speech recognition, but it’s gone a long way from there. A lot of the products that we interact with on a daily basis over the internet are using AI, and they are providing value to us. They provide our social media feeds, they provide recommendations and maps, they provide conversational interfaces like Siri or Android Assistant. All of those things are powered by AI and they are definitely providing value, but we’re still just at the beginning. There are so many things we don’t know yet how to do and so many underexplored problems to look at. So I believe we’ll continue to see applications of AI come up in new places for quite a while to come.

If I took a little statuette of a falcon, let’s say it’s a foot tall, and I showed it to you, and then I showed you some photographs, and said, “Spot the falcon.” And half the time it’s sticking halfway behind a tree, half the time it’s underwater; one time it’s got peanut butter smeared on it. A person can do that really well, but computers are far away from that. Is that an example of us being really good at transfer learning? We’re used to knowing what things with peanut butter on them look like? What is it that people are doing that computers are having a hard time to do there?

I believe that people have evolved, over a very long period of time, to operate on planet Earth with the sensors that we have. So we have a lot of built-in knowledge that tells us how to process the sensors that we have and models the world. A lot of it is instinctual, and some of it is learned. I have young children, like a year-old or so. They spend an awful lot of time just repetitively probing the world to see how it’s going to react when they do things, like pushing on a string, or a ball, and they do it over and over again because I think they’re trying to build up their models about the world. We have actually very sophisticated models of the world that maybe we take for granted sometimes because everyone seems to get them so easily. It’s not something that you have to learn in school. But these models are actually quite useful, and they’re more sophisticated than – and more general than – the models that we currently can build with today’s AI technology.

To your question about transfer learning, I feel like we’re really good at transfer learning within the domain of things that our eyes can see on planet Earth. There are probably a lot of situations where an AI would be better at transfer learning. Might actually have fewer assumptions baked in about how the world is structured, how objects look, what kind of composition of objects is actually permissible. I guess I’m just trying to say we shouldn’t forget that we come with a lot of context. That’s instinctual, and we use that, and it’s very sophisticated.

Do you take from that that we ought to learn how to embody an AI and just let it wander around the world, bumping into things and poking at them and all of that? Is that what you’re saying? How do we overcome that?

It’s an interesting question you note. I’m not personally working on trying to build artificial general intelligence, but it will be interesting for those people that are working on it to see what kind of childhood is necessary for an AI. I do think that childhood is a really important part of developing human intelligence, and plays a really important part of developing human intelligence because it helps us build and calibrate these models of how the world works, which then we apply to all sorts of things like your question of the falcon statue. Will computers need things like that? It’s possible. We’ll have to see. I think one of the things that’s different about computers is that they’re a lot better at transmitting information identically, so it may be the kind of thing that we can train once, and then just use repeatedly – as opposed to people, where the process of replicating a person is time-consuming and not exact.

But that transfer learning problem isn’t really an AGI problem at all, though. Right? We’ve taught a computer to recognize a cat, by giving it a gazillion images of a cat. But if we want to teach it how to recognize a bird, we have to start over, don’t we?

I don’t think we generally start over. I think most of the time if people wanted to create a new classifier, they would use transfer learning from an existing classifier that had been trained on a wide variety of different object types. It’s actually not very hard to do that, and people do that successfully all the time. So at least for image recognition, I think transfer learning works pretty well. For other kinds of domains, they can be a little bit more challenging. But at least for image recognition, we’ve been able to find a set of higher-level features that are very useful in discriminating between all sorts of different kinds of objects, even objects that we haven’t seen before.

What about audio? Because I’m talking to you now and I’m snapping my fingers. You don’t have any trouble continuing to hear me, but a computer trips over that. What do you think is going on in people’s minds? Why are we good at that, do you think? To get back to your point about we live on Earth, it’s one of those Earth things we do. But as a general rule, how do we teach that to a computer? Is that the same as teaching it to see something, as to teach it to hear something?

I think it’s similar. The best speech recognition accuracies come from systems that have been trained on huge amounts of data, and there does seem to be a relationship that the more data we can train a model on, the better the accuracy gets. We haven’t seen the end of that yet. I’m pretty excited about the prospects of being able to teach computers to continually understand audio, better and better. However, I wanted to point out, humans, this is kind of our superpower: conversation and communication. You watch birds flying in a flock, and the birds can all change direction instantaneously, and the whole flock just moves, and you’re like, “How do you do that and not run into each other?” They have a lot of built-in machinery that allows them to flock together. Humans have a lot of built-in machinery for conversation and for understanding spoken language. The pathways for speaking and the pathways for hearing evolve together, so they’re really well-matched.

With computers trying to understand audio, we haven’t gotten to that point yet. I remember some of the experiments that I’ve done in the past with speech recognition, that the recognition performance was very sensitive to compression artifacts that were actually not audible to humans. We could actually take a recording, like this one, and recompress it in a way that sounded identical to a person, and observe a measurable difference in the recognition accuracy of our model. That was a little disconcerting because we’re trying to train the model to be invariant to all the things that humans are invariant to, but it’s actually quite hard to do that. We certainly haven’t achieved that yet. Often, our models are still what we would call “overfitting”, where they’re paying attention to a lot of details that help it perform the tasks that we’re asking it to perform, but they’re not actually helpful to solving the fundamental tasks that we’re trying to perform. And we’re continually trying to improve our understanding of the tasks that we’re solving so that we can avoid this, but we’ve still got more work to do.

My standard question when I’m put in front of a chatbot or one of the devices that sits on everybody’s desktop, I can’t say them out loud because they’ll start talking to me right now, but the question I always ask is “What is bigger, a nickel or the sun?” To date, nothing has ever been able to answer that question. It doesn’t know how sun is spelled. “Whose son? The sun? Nickel? That’s actually a coin.” All of that. What all do we have to get good at, for the computer to answer that question? Run me down the litany of all the things we can’t do, or that we’re not doing well yet, because there’s no system I’ve ever tried that answered that correctly.

I think one of the things is that we’re typically not building chat systems to answer trivia questions just like that. I think if we were building a special-purpose trivia system for questions like that, we probably could answer it. IBM Watson did pretty well on Jeopardy, because it was trained to answer questions like that. I think we definitely have the databases, the knowledge bases, to answer questions like that. The problem is that kind of a question is really outside of the domain of most of the personal assistants that are being built as products today because honestly, trivia bots are fun, but they’re not as useful as a thing that can set a timer, or check the weather, or play a song. So those are mostly the things that those systems are focused on.

Fair enough, but I would differ. You can go to Wolfram Alpha and say, “What’s bigger, the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building?” and it’ll answer that. And you can ask Amazon’s product that same question, and it’ll answer it. Is that because those are legit questions and my question is not legit, or is it because we haven’t taught systems to disintermediate very well and so they don’t really know what I mean when I say “sun”?

I think that’s probably the issue. There’s a language modeling problem when you say, “What’s bigger, a nickel or the sun?” The sun can mean so many different things, like you were saying. Nickel, actually, can be spelled a couple of different ways and has a couple of different meanings. Dealing with ambiguities like that is a little bit hard. I think when you ask that question to me, I categorize this as a trivia question, and so I’m able to disambiguate all of those things, and look up the answer in my little knowledge base in my head, and answer your question. But I actually don’t think that particular question is impossible to solve. I just think it’s just not been a focus to try to solve stuff like that, and that’s why they’re not good.

AIs have done a really good job playing games: Deep Blue, Watson, AlphaGo, and all of that. I guess those are constrained environments with a fixed set of rules, and it’s easy to understand who wins, and what a point is, and all that. What is going to be the next thing, that’s a watershed event, that happens? Now they can outbluff people in poker. What’s something that’s going to be, in a year, or two years, five years down the road, that one day, it wasn’t like that in the universe, and the next day it was? And the next day, the best Go player in the world was a machine.

The thing that’s on my mind for that right now is autonomous vehicles. I think it’s going to change the world forever to unchain people from the driver’s seat. It’s going to give people hugely increased mobility. I have relatives that their doctors have asked them to stop driving cars because it’s no longer safe for them to be doing that, and it restricts their ability to get around the world, and that frustrates them. It’s going to change the way that we all live. It’s going to change the real estate markets, because we won’t have to park our cars in the same places that we’re going to. It’s going to change some things about the economy, because there’s going to be new delivery mechanisms that will become economically viable. I think intelligence that can help robots essentially drive around the roads, that’s the next thing that I’m most excited about, that I think is really going to change everything.

We’ll come to that in just a minute, but I’m actually asking…We have self-driving cars, and on an evolutionary basis, they’ll get a little better and a little better. You’ll see them more and more, and then someday there’ll be even more of them, and then they’ll be this and this and this. It’s not that surprise moment, though, of AlphaGo just beat Lee Sedol at Go. I’m wondering if there is something else like that—that it’s this binary milestone that we can all keep our eye open for?

I don’t know. As far as we have self-driving cars already, I don’t have a self-driving car that could say, for example, let me sit in it at nighttime, go to sleep and wake up, and it brought me to Disneyland. I would like that kind of self-driving car, but that car doesn’t exist yet. I think self-driving trucks that can go cross country carrying stuff, that’s going to radically change the way that we distribute things. I do think that we have, as you said, we’re on the evolutionary path to self-driving cars, but there’s going to be some discrete moments when people actually start using them to do new things that will feel pretty significant.

As far as games and stuff, and computers being better at games than people, it’s funny because I feel like Silicon Valley has, sometimes, a very linear idea of intelligence. That one person is smarter than another person maybe because of an SAT score, or an IQ test, or something. They use that sort of linearity of an intelligence to where some people feel threatened by artificial intelligence because they extrapolate that artificial intelligence is getting smarter and smarter along this linear scale, and that’s going to lead to all sorts of surprising things, like Lee Sedol losing to Go, but on a much bigger scale for all of us. I feel kind of the opposite. Intelligence is such a multidimensional thing. The fact that a computer is better at Go then I am doesn’t really change my life very much, because I’m not very good at Go. I don’t play Go. I don’t consider Go to be an important part of my intelligence. Same with chess. When Gary Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, that didn’t threaten my intelligence. I am sort of defining the way that I work and how I add value to the world, and what things make me happy on a lot of other axes besides “Can I play chess?” or “Can I play Go?” I think that speaks to the idea that intelligence really is very multifaceted. There’s a lot of different kinds – there’s probably thousands or millions of different kinds of intelligence – and it’s not very linearizable.

Because of that, I feel like, as we watch artificial intelligence develop, we’re going to see increasingly more intelligent machines, but they’re going to be increasingly more intelligent in some very narrow domains like “this is the better Go-playing robot than me”, or “this is the better car driver than me”. That’s going to be incredibly useful, but it’s not going to change the way that I think about myself, or about my work, or about what makes me happy. Because I feel like there are so many more dimensions of intelligence that are going to remain the province of humans. That’s going to take a very long time, if ever, for artificial intelligence to become better at all of them than us. Because, as I said, I don’t believe that intelligence is a linearizable thing.

And you said you weren’t a philosopher. I guess the thing that’s interesting to people, is there was a time when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse. And then the train came along, and information could travel. That’s why in the old Westerns – if they ever made it on the train, that was it, and they were out of range. Nothing traveled faster than the train. Then we had a telegraph and, all of a sudden, that was this amazing thing that information could travel at the speed of light. And then one time they ran these cables under the ocean, and somebody in England could talk to somebody in the United States instantly. Each one of them, and I think it’s just an opportunity to pause, and reflect, and to mark a milestone, and to think about what it all means. I think that’s why a computer just beat these awesome poker players. It learned to bluff. You just kind of want to think about it.

So let’s talk about jobs for a moment because you’ve been talking around that for just a second. Just to set the question up: Generally speaking, there are three views of what automation and artificial intelligence are going to do to jobs. One of them reflects kind of what you were saying is that there are going to be a certain group of workers who are considered low skilled, and there are going to be automation that takes these low-skilled jobs, and that there’s going to be a sizable part of the population that’s locked out of the labor market, and it’s kind of like the permanent Great Depression over and over and over forever. Then there’s another view that says, “No, you don’t understand. There’s going to be an inflection point where they can do every single thing. They’re going to be a better conductor and a better painter and a better novelist and a better everything than us. Don’t think that you’ve got something that a machine can’t do.” Clearly, that isn’t your viewpoint from what you said. Then there’s a third viewpoint that says, “No, in the past, even when we had these transformative technologies like electricity and mechanization, people take those technologies and they use them to increase their own productivity and, therefore, their own incomes. And you never have unemployment go up because of them, because people just take it and make a new job with it.” Of those three, or maybe a fourth one I didn’t cover; where do you find yourself?

I feel like I’m closer in spirit to number three. I’m optimistic. I believe that the primary way that we should expect economic growth in the future is by increased productivity. If you buy a house or buy some stock and you want to sell it 20 or 30 years from now, who’s going to buy it, and with what money, and why do you expect the price to go up? I think the answer to that question should be the people in the future should have more money than us because they’re more productive, and that’s why we should expect our world economy to continue growing. Because we find more productivity. I actually feel like this is actually necessary. World productivity growth has been slowing for the past several decades, and I feel like artificial intelligence is our way out of this trap where we have been unable to figure out how to grow our economy because our productivity hasn’t been improving. I actually feel like this is a necessary thing for all of us, is to figure out how to improve productivity, and I think AI is the way that we’re going to do that for the next several decades.

The one thing that I disagreed with in your third statement was this idea that unemployment would never go up. I think nothing is ever that simple. I actually am quite concerned about job displacement in the short-term. I think there will be people that suffer and in fact, I think, to a certain extent, this is already happening. The election of Donald Trump was an eye-opener to me that there really exists a lot of people that feel that they have been left behind by the economy, and they come to very different conclusions about the world than I might. I think that it’s possible that, as we continue to digitize our society, and AI becomes a lever that some people will become very good at using to increase their productivity, that we’re going to see increased inequality and that worries me.

The primary challenges that I’m worried about, for our society, with the rise of AI, have to do more with making sure that we give people purpose and meaning in their life that maybe doesn’t necessarily revolve around punching out a timecard, and showing up to work at 8 o’clock in the morning every day. I want to believe that that future exists. There are a lot of people right now that are brilliant people that have a lot that they could be contributing in many different ways – intellectually, artistically – that are currently not given that opportunity, because they maybe grew up in a place that didn’t have the right opportunities for them to get the right education so that they could apply their skills in that way, and many of them are doing jobs that I think don’t allow them to use their full potential.

So I’m hoping that, as we automate many of those jobs, that more people will be able to find work that provides meaning and purpose to them and allows them to actually use their talents and make the world a better place, but I acknowledge that it’s not going to be an easy transition. I do think that there’s going to be a lot of implications for how our government works and how our economy works, and I hope that we can figure out a way to help defray some of the pain that will happen during this transition.

You talked about two things. You mentioned income inequality as a thing, but then you also said, “I think we’re going to have unemployment from these technologies.” Separating those for a minute and just looking at the unemployment one for a minute, you say things are never that simple. But with the exception of the Great Depression, which nobody believes was caused by technology, unemployment has been between 5% and 10% in this country for 250 years and it only moves between 5% and 10% because of the business cycle, but there aren’t counterexamples. Just imagine if your job was you had animals that performed physical labor. They pulled, and pushed, and all of that. And somebody made the steam engine. That was disruptive. But even when we had that, we had electrification of industry. We adopted steam power. We went from 5% to 85% of our power being generated by steam in just 22 years. And even when you had that kind of disruption, you still didn’t have any increases in unemployment. I’m curious, what is the mechanism, in your mind, by which this time is different?

I think that’s a good point that you raise, and I actually haven’t studied all of those other transitions that our society has gone through. I’d like to believe that it’s not different. That would be a great story if we could all come to agreement, that we won’t see increased unemployment from AI. I think the reason why I’m a little bit worried is that I think this transition in some fields will happen quickly, maybe more quickly than some of the transitions in the past did. Just because, as I was saying, AI is easier to replicate than some other technologies, like electrification of a country. It takes a lot of time to build out physical infrastructure that can actually deliver that. Whereas I think for a lot of AI applications, that infrastructure will be cheaper and quicker to build, so the velocity of the change might be faster and that could lead to a little bit more shock. But it’s an interesting point you raise, and I certainly hope that we can find a way through this transition that is less painful than I’m worried it could be.

Do you worry about misuse of AI? I’m an optimist on all of this. And I know that every time we have some new technology come along, people are always looking at the bad cases. You take something like the internet, and the internet has overwhelmingly been a force for good. It connects people in a profound way. There’s a million things. And yeah, some people abuse it. But on net, all technology, I believe, almost all technology on net is used for good because I think, on net, people, on average, are more inclined to build than to destroy. That being said, do you worry about nefarious uses of AI, specifically in warfare?

Yeah. I think that there definitely are going to be some scary killer robots that armies make. Armies love to build machinery that kills things and AI will help them do that, and that will be scary. I think it’s interesting, like, where is the real threat going to come from? Sometimes, I feel like the threat of malevolent AI being deployed against people is going to be more subtle than that. It’s going to be more about things that you can do after compromising fiber systems of some adversary, and things that you can do to manipulate them using AI. There’s been a lot of discussion about Russian involvement in the 2016 election in the US, and that wasn’t about sending evil killer robots. It was more about changing people’s opinions, or attempting to change their opinions, and AI will give entities tools to do that on a scale that maybe we haven’t seen before. I think there may be nefarious uses of AI that are more subtle and harder to see than a full-frontal assault from a movie with evil killer robots. I do worry about all of those things, but I also share your optimism. I think we humans, we make lots of mistakes and we shouldn’t give ourselves too easy of a time here. We should learn from those mistakes, but we also do a lot of things well. And we have used technologies in the past to make the world better, and I hope AI will do so as well.

Pedro Domingo wrote a book called The Master Algorithm where he says there are all of these different tools and techniques that we use in artificial intelligence. And he surmises that there is probably a grandparent algorithm, the master algorithm, that can solve any problem, any range of problems. Does that seem possible to you or likely, or do you have any thoughts on that?

I think it’s a little bit far away, at least from AI as it’s practiced today. Right now, the practical, on-the-ground experience of researchers trying to use AI to do something new is filled with a lot of pain, suffering, blood, sweat, tears, and perseverance if they are to succeed, and I see that in my lab every day. Most of the researchers – and I have brilliant researchers in my lab that are working very hard, and they’re doing amazing work. And most of the things they try fail. And they have to keep trying. I think that’s generally the case right now across all the people that are working on AI. The thing that’s different is we’ve actually started to see some big successes, along with all of those more frustrating everyday occurrences. So I do think that we’re making the progress, but I think having a master algorithm that’s pushbutton that can solve any problem you pose to it that’s something that’s hard for me to conceive of with today’s state of artificial intelligence.

AI, of course, it’s doubtful we’ll have another AI winter because, like you said, it’s kind of delivering the goods, and there have been three things that have happened that made that possible. One of them is better hardware, and obviously you’re part of that world. The second thing is better algorithms. We’ve learned to do things a lot smarter. And the third thing is we have more data, because we are able to collect it, and store it, and whatnot. Assuming you think the hardware is the biggest of the driving factors, what would you think has been the bigger advance? Is it that we have so much more data, or so much better algorithms?

I think the most important thing is more data. I think the algorithms that we’re using in AI right now are, more or less, clever variations of algorithms that have been around for decades, and used to not work. When I was a PhD student and I was studying AI, all the smart people told me, “Don’t work with deep learning, because it doesn’t work. Use this other algorithm called support vector machines.” Which, at the time, that was the hope that that was going to be the master algorithm. So I stayed away from deep learning back then because, at the time, it didn’t work. I think now we have so much more data, and deep learning models have been so successful at taking advantage of that data, that we’ve been able to make a lot of progress. I wouldn’t characterize deep learning as a master algorithm, though, because deep learning is like a fuzzy cloud of things that have some relationships to each other, but actually finding a space inside that fuzzy cloud to solve a particular problem requires a lot of human ingenuity.

Is there a phrase – it’s such a jargon-loaded industry now – are there any of the words that you just find rub you the wrong way? Because they don’t mean anything and people use them as if they do? Do you have anything like that?

Everybody has pet peeves. I would say that my biggest pet peeve right now is the word neuromorphic. I have almost an allergic reaction every time I hear that word, mostly because I don’t think we know what neurons are or what they do, and I think modeling neurons in a way that actually could lead to brain simulations that actually worked is a very long project that we’re decades away from solving. I could be wrong on that. I’m always waiting for somebody to prove me wrong. Strong opinions, weakly held. But so far, neuromorphic is a word that I just have an allergic reaction to, every time.

Tell me about what you do. You are the head of Applied AI Research at NVIDIA, so what does your day look like? What does your team work on? What’s your biggest challenge right now, and all of that?

NVIDIA sells GPUs which have powered most of the deep learning revolution, so pretty much all of the work that’s going on with deep learning across the entire world right now, runs on NVIDIA GPUs. And that’s been very exciting for NVIDIA, and exciting for me to be involved in building that. The next step, I think, for NVIDIA is to figure out how to use AI to change the way that it does its own work. NVIDIA is incentivized to do this because we see the value that AI is bringing to our customers. Our GPU sales have been going up quite a bit because we’re providing a lot of value to everyone else who’s trying to use AI for their own problems. So the next step is to figure out how to use AI for NVIDIA’s problems directly. Andrew Ng, who I used to work with, has this great quote that “AI is the new electricity,” and I believe that. I think that we’re going to see AI applied in many different ways to many different kinds of problems, and my job at NVIDIA is to figure out how to do that here. So that’s what my team focuses on.

We have projects going on in quite a few different domains, ranging from graphics to audio, and text, and others. We’re trying to change the way that everything at NVIDIA happens: from chip design, to video games, and everything in between. As far as my day-to-day work goes, I lead this team, so that means I spend a lot of time talking with people on the team about the work that they’re doing, and trying to make sure they have the right resources, data, the right hardware, the right ideas, the right connections, so that they can make progress on problems that they’re trying to solve. Then when we have prototypes that we’ve built showing how to apply AI to a particular problem, then I work with people around the company to show them the promise of AI applied to problems that they care about.

I think one of the things that’s really exciting to me about this mission is that we’re really trying to change NVIDIA’s work at the core of the company. So rather than working on applied AI, that could maybe help some peripheral part of the company that maybe could be nice if we did that, we’re actually trying to solve very fundamental problems that the company faces with AI, and hopefully we’ll be able to change the way that the company does business, and transform NVIDIA into an AI company, and not just a company that makes hardware for AI.

You are the head of the Applied AI Research. Is there a Pure AI Research group, as well?

Yes, there is.

So everything you do, you have an internal customer for already?

That’s the idea. To me, the difference between fundamental research and applied research is more a question of emphasis on what’s the fundamental goal of your work. If the goal is academic novelty, that would be fundamental research. Our goal is, we think about applications all the time, and we don’t work on problems unless we have a clear application that we’re trying to build that could use a solution.

In most cases, do other groups come to you and say, “We have this problem we really want to solve. Can you help us?” Or is the science nascent enough that you go and say, “Did you know that we can actually solve this problem for you?”

It kind of works all of those ways. We have a list of projects that people around the company have proposed to us, and we also have a list of projects that we ourselves think are interesting to look at. There’s also a few projects that my management tells me, “I really want you to look at this problem. I think it’s really important.” We get input from all directions, and then prioritize, and go after the ones we think are most feasible, and most important.

And do you find a talent shortage? You’re NVIDIA on the one hand, but on the other hand, you know: it’s AI.

I think the entire field, no matter what company you work at, the entire field has a shortage of qualified scientists that can do AI research, and that’s despite the fact that the amount of people jumping into AI is increasing every year. If you go to any of the academic AI conferences, you’ll see how much energy and how much excitement, and how many people that are there that didn’t used to be there. That’s really wonderful to see. But even with all of that growth and change, it is a big problem for the industry. So, to all of your listeners that are trying to figure out what to do next, come work on AI. We have lots of fun problems to work on, and not nearly enough people doing it.

I know a lot of your projects I’m sure you can’t talk about, but tell me something you have done, that you can talk about, and what the goal was, and what you were able to achieve. Give us a success story.

I’ll give you one that’s relevant to the last question that you asked, which is about how to find talent for AI. We’ve actually built a system that can match candidates to job openings at NVIDIA. Basically, it can predict how well we think a particular candidate is a fit for a particular job. That system is actually performing pretty well. So we’re trialing it with hiring managers around the company to figure out if it can help them be more efficient in their work as they search for people to come join NVIDIA.

That looks like a game, isn’t it? I assume you have a pool of resumes or LinkedIn profiles or whatever, and then you have a pool of successful employees, and you have a pool of job descriptions and you’re trying to say, “How can I pull from that big pool, based on these job descriptions, and actually pick the people that did well in the end?”

That’s right.

That’s like a game, right? You have points.

That’s right.

Would you ever productize anything, or is everything that you’re doing just for your own use?

We focus primarily on building prototypes, not products, in my team. I think that’s what the research is about. Once we build a prototype that shows promise for a particular problem, then we work with other people in the company to get that actually deployed, and they would be the people that think about business strategy about whether something should be productized, or not.

But you, in theory, might turn “NVIDIA Resume Pro” into something people could use?

Possibly. NVIDIA also works with a lot of other companies. As we enable companies in many different parts of the economy to apply AI to their problems, we work with them to help them do that. So it might make more sense for us, for example, to deliver this prototype to some of our partners that are in a position to deliver products like this more directly, and then they can figure out how to enlarge its capabilities, and make it more general to try to solve bigger problems that address their whole market and not just one company’s needs. Partnering with other companies is good for NVIDIA because it helps us grow AI which is something we want to do because, as AI grows, we grow. Personally, I think some of the things that we’re working on; it just doesn’t really make sense. It’s not really in NVIDIA’s DNA to productize them directly because it’s just not the business model that the company has.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the “right to know” legislation in Europe: the idea that if an AI makes a decision about you, you have a right to know why it made that decision. AI researchers are like, “It’s not necessarily that easy to do that.” So in your case, your AI would actually be subject to that. It would say, “Why did you pick that person over this person for that job?” Is that an answerable question?

First of all, I don’t think that this system – or I can’t imagine – using it to actually make hiring decisions. I think that would be irresponsible. This system makes mistakes. What we’re trying to do is improve productivity. If instead of having to sort through 200 resumes to find 3 that I want to talk to—if I can look at 10 instead—then that’s a pretty good improvement in my productivity, but I’m still going to be involved, as a hiring manager, to figure out who is the right fit for my jobs.

But an AI excluded 190 people from that position.

It didn’t exclude them. It sorted them, and then the person decided how to allocate their time in a search.

Let’s look at the problem more abstractly. What do you think, just in general, about the idea that every decision an AI makes, should be, and can be, explained?

I think it’s a little bit utopian. Certainly, I don’t have the ability to explain all of the decisions that I make, and people, generally, are not very good at explaining their decisions, which is why there are significant legal battles going on about factual things, that people see in different ways, and remember in different ways. So asking a person to explain their intent is actually a very complicated thing, and we’re not actually very good at it. So I don’t actually think that we’re going to be able to enforce that AI is able to explain all of its decisions in a way that makes sense to humans. I do think that there are things that we can do to make the results of these systems more interpretable. For example, on the resume job description matching system that I mentioned earlier, we’ve built a prototype that can highlight parts of the resume that were most interesting to the model, both in a positive, and in a negative sense. That’s a baby step towards interpretability so that if you were to pull up that job description and a particular person and you could see how they matched, that might explain to you what the model was paying attention to as it made a ranking.

It’s funny because when you hear reasons why people exclude a resume, I remember one person said, “I’m not going to hire him. He has the same first name as somebody else on the team. That’d just be too confusing.” And somebody else I remember said that the applicant was a vegan and the place they like to order pizza from didn’t have a vegan alternative that the team liked to order from. Those are anecdotal of course, but people use all kinds of other things when they’re thinking about it.

Yeah. That’s actually one of the reasons why I’m excited about this particular system is that I feel like we should be able to construct it in a way that actually has fewer biases than people do, because we know that people harbor all sorts of biases. We have employment laws that guide us to stay away from making decisions based on protected classes. I don’t know if veganism is a protected class, but it’s verging on that. If you’re making hiring decisions based on people’s personal lifestyle choices, that’s suspect. You could get in trouble for that. Our models, we should be able to train them to be more dispassionate than any human could be.

We’re running out of time. Let’s close up by: do you consume science fiction? Do you ever watch movies or read books or any of that? And if so, is there any of it that you look at, especially any that portrays artificial intelligence, like Ex Machina, or Her, or Westworld or any of that stuff, that you look at and you’re like, “Wow, that’s really interesting,” or “That could happen,” or “That’s fascinating,” or anything like that?

I do consume science fiction. I love science fiction. I don’t actually feel like current science fiction matches my understanding of AI very well. Ex Machina, for example, that was a fun movie. I enjoyed watching that movie, but I felt, from a scientific point of view, it just wasn’t very interesting. I was talking about our built-in models of the world. One of the things that humans, over thousands of years, have drilled into our heads is that there’s somebody out to get you. We have a large part of our brain that’s worrying all the time, like, “Who’s going to come kill me tonight? Who’s going to take away my job? Who’s going to take my food? Who’s going to burn down my house?” There’s all these things that we worry about. So a lot of the depictions of AI in science fiction inflame that part of the brain that is worrying about the future, rather than actually speak to the technology and its potential.

I think probably the part of science fiction that has had the most impact on my thoughts about AI is Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws. Those, I think, are pretty classic, and I hope that some of them can be adapted to the kinds of problems that we’re trying to solve with AI, to make AI safe, and make it possible for people to feel confident that they’re interacting with AI, and not worry about it. But I feel like most of science fiction is, especially movies – maybe books can be a little bit more intellectual and maybe a little bit more interesting – but especially movies, it just sells more movies to make people afraid, than it does to show people a mundane existence where AI is helping people live better lives. It’s just not nearly as compelling of a movie, so I don’t actually feel like popular culture treatment of AI is very realistic.

All right. Well, on that note, I say, we wrap up. I want to thank you for a great hour. We covered a lot of ground, and I appreciate you traveling all that way with me.

It was fun.

Byron explores issues around artificial intelligence and conscious computers in his upcoming book The Fourth Age, to be published in April by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Pre-order a copy here. 

.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed {
font-size: 1.4rem;
background: url(https://voicesinai.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/cropped-voices-background.jpg) black;
background-position: center;
background-size: cover;
color: white;
padding: 1rem 1.5rem;
font-weight: 200;
text-transform: uppercase;
margin-bottom: 1.5rem;
}

.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed:last-of-type {
margin-bottom: 0;
}

.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed .logo {
margin-top: .25rem;
display: block;
background: url(https://voicesinai.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/voices-in-ai-logo-light-768×264.png) center left no-repeat;
background-size: contain;
width: 100%;
padding-bottom: 30%;
text-indent: -9999rem;
margin-bottom: 1.5rem
}

@media (min-width: 960px) {
.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed .logo {
width: 262px;
height: 90px;
float: left;
margin-right: 1.5rem;
margin-bottom: 0;
padding-bottom: 0;
}
}

.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed a:link,
.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed a:visited {
color: #FF6B00;
}

.voice-in-ai-link-back a:hover {
color: #ff4f00;
}

.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed ul.go-alexa-briefing-subscribe-links {
margin-left: 0 !important;
margin-right: 0 !important;
margin-bottom: 0.25rem;
}

.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed ul.go-alexa-briefing-subscribe-links a:link,
.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed ul.go-alexa-briefing-subscribe-links a:visited {
background-color: rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.77);
}

.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed ul.go-alexa-briefing-subscribe-links a:hover {
background-color: rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.63);
}

.voice-in-ai-link-back-embed ul.go-alexa-briefing-subscribe-links .stitcher .stitcher-logo {
display: inline;
width: auto;
fill: currentColor;
height: 1em;
margin-bottom: -.15em;
}