If you would have to introduce someone with almost no background in computer science or mathematics to your most important AI-project at the moment, how would you do that?
There are several important projects in computer vision, language translation, natural language understanding, etc. But there are two basic research projects on which we are spending a lot efforts. One is dialog systems, intelligent chatbots, and virtual assistants. The basic science and technology for smart virtual assistants doesn’t yet exist, and we are finding ways to allow machines to acquire complex background knowledge by reading text, so as to be able to reason with this knowledge. Second, we are working on something called “predictive learning” which would allow machines to learn a kind of “common sense” by observation, the way humans and animals do.
What are the crucial breakthroughs that lead to the AI-hype we go through right now?
It’s all due to the emergence of Deep Learning. Deep Learning is a set of techniques for training a computer to perform tasks such as detecting and recognizing objects in images, driving a car, recognizing speech or translating languages. While the basic ideas of deep learning have been around since the late 1980s, they have become dominant over the last 5 years because of progress in methods, faster computers and larger dataset on which to train them. A particular deep learning technique called convolutional neural networks – which I originally developed at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1989 -- has become a kind of universal tool for image recognition, self-driving cars, medical image analysis, text processing and many other applications.
Many people are afraid about potential consequences of further AI-progress. They are not sure about how resilient their jobs and knowledge are. What is your view on that?
AI is going to amplify human intelligence not replace it, the same way any tool amplifies our abilities. Now, technological progress has always had the effects of (1) increasing overall wealth, (2) creating new jobs (3) making some jobs obsolete. The emergence of AI will also have that effect. The problems societies will have to deal with are (1) the acceleration of technological progress, which causes an increased number of people to retrain for new skills and new jobs (2) the fact that the wealth created by technological progress should be shared with all of society.
Should computer science be obligatory for every pupil today – maybe beginning in elementary school?
The process of reducing a complex task to a set of simple instructions, which is what programming is all about, is a skill that is very useful in many aspects of modern life, not just to professional computer scientists and programmers. So yes, it would be good if most high-school pupils knew the basics of computer programming by the time they graduate. There are tools that can be used to teach young children to program, such as the Scratch visual programming language. I’m not a specialist of education, but I would have loved to be able to play with something like this when I was a kid!
In the past, there have been periods of hope and so called “AI-Winters” – is that kind of cycle still alive and where are we now?