Martin Ford: One-on-One with the Architects of Intelligence

In Martin Ford's last book, the best-selling "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future" (Basic Books, 2015), the noted futurist explained how software that can leverage Big Data and predictive algorithms is poised to "transform the nature and number of knowledge-based jobs in organizations and industries across the board." In other words, it's not just blue collar workers whose jobs are threatened by the advent of AI and machine learning. If your white collar gig can be automated, add it to the endangered species list.

In his new book, "Architects of Intelligence: The Truth About AI from the People Building It" (Packt Publishing), which just hit the shelves this month, Ford assembles a fascinating series of in-depth, one-on-one interviews with 23 of the world's leading researchers and entrepreneurs working in various aspects of the fields of AI and robotics.

"Over the last decade, 'AI' has been primarily about deep learning," Ford told Pure AI, "so I made sure to include the most prominent people I could find working on that technology. But I also picked a number of people who have been critical of it, as well as people researching other areas, such as emotional AI, and some people with serious entrepreneurial ambitions."

Many of the interviews included in this book are high-level conversations with extremely smart engineers and scientists about a topic some readers might feel is beyond them. But even the techie talks in this book are surprisingly accessible -- and Ford helps readers gear up with an introduction that includes a great basic AI/ML vocabulary list.

Among the marquee names on Ford's interview list is inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who is probably best-known as the author of "The Singularity is Near" (Penguin Books, September 2006) and "How to Create a Mind" (Penguin Books, August 2013). Kurzweil is currently director of Engineering at Google, but his long resume is, well, Wikipedia-worthy. (He also maintains the Accelerating Intelligence Web site that's well worth a look.) Another is Andrew Ng, the co-founder of Coursera who also led the Google Brain Team. Also, there's a conversation with Jeffrey Dean, Google senior fellow and current head of AI and Google Brain.

But you'll also find conversations with Yoshua Bengio, scientific director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms; Berkeley computer science professor and AI textbook author Stuart J. Russell; Fei-Fei Li, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL); neuroscientist Demis Hassabis, co-founder of DeepMind; Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT; and James Manyika, a senior partner at McKinsey and chairman of the McKinsey Global Institute, which researches global economic and technology trends.

Ford also made sure that his interview list included entrepreneurs with serious commercial ambitions for this technology -- people like Rana el Kaliouby, co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, a start-up specializing in AI systems that sense and understand human emotions; Gary Marcus, founder and CEO of Geometric Intelligence, a machine learning company recently acquired by Uber; Cynthia Breazeal, Director of the Personal Robotics Group at the MIT Media Lab who also founded "social robotics" company Jibo; and Coursera's other co-founder, Daphne Koller, whose start-up company, insitro, is using machine learning to research and develop new drugs.

One of the things about this book that will make it stand out from the sky-high-and-growing stack of publications on this newly popular subject is that it demonstrates, with compelling conversations that, at least for now, there's really no consensus among AI mavens about where these technologies are leading us and when we'll get there.

"Their differences on some very important things was truly striking," Ford said. "For example, the one question I asked everyone, of course, was 'When will we achieve human-level AI.' It's really the most fascinating question of all, and the predictions ranged from Rodney Brooks' (chairman of Rethink Robotics) estimate of nearly 200 years to Ray Kurzweil's estimate of 11 years."

"One thing they all agreed on to some extent," Ford added, "is that AI is going to be tremendously disruptive. Everyone agreed that its potential impact on jobs and the economy is not overhyped, but very real. If you look at the improving dexterity of the robots in, for example, the Amazon warehouses. Within five years or so, those environments are probably going to be a lot less human-labor-intensive. For people who can learn these technologies, the opportunities are there. Some of those folks are making millions, but it's rare that you can take a fast-food worker and turn him or her into a deep learning expert."

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in AI, machine learning, and deep learning, and the impact of these rapidly evolving technologies on the economy and society. Here are some quotations from the book to whet your appetite:

Yoshua Bengio: "Current AI -- and the AI that we can foresee in the reasonable future -- does not, and will not, have a moral sense or moral understanding of what is right and what is wrong."

Rana El Kaliouby: "I feel that this view, about the existential threat that robots are going to take over humanity, takes away our agency as humans. At the end of the day, we're designing these systems, and we get to say how they are deployed, we can turn the switch off."

Fei-Fei Li: "If we look around, whether you're looking at AI groups in companies, AI professors in academia, AI PhD students or AI presenters at top AI conferences, no matter where you cut it: we lack diversity. We lack women, and we lack under-represented minorities."

James Manyika: "Somebody should be thinking about what the regulation of AI should look like. But I think the regulation shouldn't start with the view that its goal is to stop AI and put back the lid on a Pandora's box, or hold back the deployment of these technologies and try and turn the clock back."

Daphne Koller: "Stopping progress by stopping technology is the wrong approach. [...] If you don't make progress technologically, someone else will, and their intent might be considerably less beneficial than yours."

Ray Kurzweil: "The scenario that I have is that we will send medical nanorobots into our bloodstream. [...] These robots will also go into the brain and provide virtual and augmented reality from within the nervous system rather than from devices attached to the outside of our bodies."

Rodney Brooks: "We don't have anything anywhere near as good as an insect, so I'm not afraid of superintelligence showing up anytime soon."

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at