Apr 1, 2017

Thoughts on Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

Last week I finished up Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Coming into the book, I'd often heard it as the pessimist's response to Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. I didn't really find that to be the case though: Bostrom certainly paints some scary pictures of potential futures as artificial intelligence develops, but he's not in denial about all of the positive potential. It's more that Bostrom felt there hadn't been a sufficient treatment of the downsides (and strategies to mitigate them) in the existing literature, so he sought to create that balance.

Getting through the read was a slog. It's probably one of the longest periods of time (a couple of months) I've spent on a book and still finished it. It's a topic I'm really passionate about too, more's the pity. The reality is that it's hard to relate to the topics that Bostrom digs into to a sufficient degree to justify spending time on the detail that he goes into. He spends 100 pages digging into the different structures of AGI systems and their relative merits and downsides vis-a-vis their capabilities and their potential to destroy humanity. I would be fascinated by the blog post. 100 pages is tough.

That being said, I don't think Superintelligence is a bad book. In fact, I think it serves as a great handbook to form a baseline for practitioners' future efforts to address the riskiness of developing AGI. After an initial read-through, the book may have lasting value as a reference guide when developers and researchers are diving into the actual development of these mitigation systems.

In all, I think Superintelligence is a must-read for any serious AI advocate. Most of the topics covered and the arguments presented won't be novel for someone who has spent time in the space, but it does provide a common language and frame of reference to drive future discussion. Relevant topics: superintelligence take-off scenarios, mediums (silicon, biological, swarm, etc.), types of systems, organizations that might pursue/achieve AGI.
Mar 31, 2017

Thoughts on Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

I just finished up the Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance earlier this week. It was a welcome fast read after the slog that was Superintelligence: captivating enough that I finished it in two or three days.

Embarrassingly for someone in my position, I didn't really know that much about Elon's story before reading the book. I knew he'd made his money at PayPal, vaguely remembered he had done a startup before then, and was aware of the broad exploits of Tesla and SpaceX. Despite having lived the history of those last two companies, I really didn't know much beyond the initial success of the Roadster to make electric cool, the ubiquity of the Model S, and the fact that SpaceX was successfully doing rocket launches. For anyone who's currently at a similar level of understanding, I highly recommend giving the book a read. It's a fascinating story and in many ways Elon Musk is the modern Henry Ford; it's a pity to not be more aware of the history he's creating every day.

In large part, I agree with Vance's interpretation: Elon Musk doesn't always make the most inspiring decisions and has been the beneficiary of no shortage of good luck; yet, he has consistently pushed hard tech forward in a way that virtually no one else has in recent history. Musk's work has undoubtedly propelled the world forward and it's ungenerous in the extreme to chalk all of that up to fortune. At the same time, Musk's fans must not ignore some of his missteps (notably being ousted as CEO of PayPal, which most employees at the time agree was the right decision as well as his contributions to the arguably unnecessary delays of the Roadster).

The biography has cemented for me a theme I've identified across other successful founder stories (Steve Jobs, Ben Horowitz, Rockefeller): an unrelenting dedication to making the company successful. In all of these cases, that has occasionally involved the use of amoral tactics (or at least ones that I don't personally agree with). These founders seem to embrace the mindset that the ends justify the means and anything that might interfere with those ends is a roadblock to be removed. This approach leads to the burning of plenty of fertile fields: firing top engineers, tarnishing the company's image in the public's mind, and destroying any semblance of balance in the founders' personal lives. And yet, the companies are successful and these founders have left their mark on the world.

Now, to some extent I could be seeing some survivor bias. Just because these four anecdotes have had hard-charging founders doesn't mean that being a hard-charging founder is a recipe for success (there are undoubtedly tens of thousands of companies in the startup graveyard that had similar founders). But it is interesting that these stories (and other success tales) don't tend to feature protagonists known for their compassion and patience.

Another important takeaway for me is how tenuous the situations of both Tesla and SpaceX looked for quite some time. It's easy now just a few short years later to assume that their success was destined. But throughout their early years there were plenty of times where it looked like failure was imminent.
Mar 3, 2017

The Power of Connectedness

I’ve written before about my desire to tackle the problems that lead to the achievement gap in our society. When you boil the problems down to their core, you’re left with one consistent theme: those from the lower economic classes who want to get ahead in life are limited by a lack of opportunity and exposure. My previous article describes how an AI agent can help address those lacks through universal education. Here, I want to lay out an approach that I think may be even more powerful.

Much of the world’s attention has been on the executive office of the United States these past few months as Donald Trump has settled into the office. So far, Trump has been a historically unpopular president. Some of the criticisms of the president are based on the seeming hypocrisy of his populist rhetoric juxtaposed with his own origins. Trump likes to claim that he is a self-made man, having received “nothing more” than a million dollar loan from his father to get his first business off the ground. This seed sprouts into the argument that the 45th president has ridden the coattails of his father’s success to the most lofty position in the world.

Whether you place weight on these criticisms or not, it is undeniable that a person’s personal connections do much to determine their success in life. Personally, I need very little convincing on this point: I simply have to look at how I’ve benefited from my own connections.

The Story of David

My professional career essentially began at the age of 15. My mom insisted that I get a summer job to start making some money. I had no desire to follow in the footsteps of my brothers to get a near-minimum-wage job unrelated to any of my personal interests. Fortunately, I was in a privileged position: my high school had a structured internship program for seniors. I wasn’t yet a senior, but I went and asked the internship coordinator if she knew of any companies that were willing to pay an intern over the summer. I ended up spending my summer days working in the IT department of a local medium-sized business, learning a fair amount about the field and getting paid about twice the minimum wage.

My next internship search was a couple of years later in college. I knew from my parents and brothers that good internships early on in college were an important stepping stone to a good job after graduation. After one aborted attempt, I returned to my network for help. This time, the aid came from my now-father-in-law, who worked at a major corporation with a top tier internship program. He put in a good word for me and the next thing I knew I had spent two semesters in a world-class professional setting making good money.

While much of my career progression since those first two internships has been more opportunistic, it would be hard to overstate the importance of that early experience in getting me where I am today. It’s the rare candidate straight out of school who had the caliber of experience I showed on my resume. And in each case I can draw a very clear connection between the people in my network and my success. This advantage has played out in a thousand different ways since then. Just recently I applied to an interesting role and quickly discovered that I knew five different employees of the company through my LinkedIn network. I reached out to one of them and my application was immediately moved to the top of the stack for consideration. I’m now at the point in my career where it’s easy to take this type of advantage for granted; I must constantly remind myself that most job applicants are simply ignored when they apply to a role because they don’t have the advantage of knowing someone on the inside.

For the sake of comparison, I want to lay out a parallel storyline. This is fictional, but closely mirrors the stories of several people in my life.

The Story of Jake

Jake lives in a single parent home and needs to get a job in high school to help pay for his clothes and food. After several weeks of driving around town and filling out applications, he is hired to be a cashier at Wendy’s, making minimum wage. He works through the summer, putting in at least 40 hours every week. But he doesn’t make enough to tide him through the school year and has to continue putting in hours in the evenings and weekends. Between the job and his social life, his grades slip from a B average to a high C.

Senior year rolls around and Jake applies to a handful of universities. His grades aren’t enough to get him into the top school in the state, but he ends up at a large university that is reasonably well-respected. To save money, he lives at home. Despite taking out student loans, he has to keep working part-time. At least he’s a shift manager now, making 50% over minimum wage.

Jake knows that internships are important, but most of the good ones are unpaid. He does manage to squeeze in one semester at a pretty good company, but other than that he needs to keep up his hours at Wendy’s. He takes university a bit more seriously than he did high school, and graduates with a B average. Luckily, the job market is healthy when Jake graduates, and he lands an entry-level job related to his major making $50K per year. He’s doing better than plenty of his friends from high school.

Having worked for his entire mature life to this point, Jake has no problem throwing himself into his new job. He always stays late and puts in some hours on the weekend. After a few years, Jake’s efforts are rewarded by his boss with a promotion. He’s now making $65K per year and older people in the company plot out a path for career success for Jake: a promotion every three to five years, hitting middle management in his 40s, and being able to retire around 60. Not too bad.

To be clear, Jake’s story isn’t bad. He does better than most Americans and exhibits the admirable traits of a strong work ethic and perseverance. But in terms of career success, Jake’s story isn’t mine. And there’s no fundamental reason that it shouldn’t be.

How the 1% Gets Ahead...

The only real difference between my career trajectory and Jake’s is that I got a helping hand from people in my network early and learned the value of progressing in my career through the people I know. I would argue that on every other dimension Jake should be doing better than me.

While this anecdote is dramatized, it’s highly indicative of a driving force behind the achievement gap in our society. The most successful get “handed” opportunities while the rest have to work for their success. Trump’s dad gave him a million dollar loan. My father-in-law to-be helped me get a top tier internship. While these anecdotes are illuminating, they don’t tell the whole story: this societal “favoritism” continues throughout life. My first six years in the professional workforce have allowed me to cultivate a network that was critical in me raising funding for my first startup and will undoubtedly play a key role in whatever is in store for me next.

This is how the successful get ahead. They don’t just worry about the skills that show up on their resume. They don’t focus on putting in long hours at the office, staying humble, and earning their fair share. They’re constantly on the lookout for opportunity, meeting people, exchanging favors, and trying to get ahead. This is true for virtually every investment banker, management consultant, lawyer, and Fortune 500 CEO in the world.

Many people have come to see the ambition and opportunism of the 1% as purely negative traits. But I see no reason for that to be the case. While each of the behaviors I listed above can be twisted to acts of selfishness and evil, they can likewise be wonderful and beneficial to society. Trading favors as a tactical way to get ahead with no underlying care for the individual with whom you’re dealing is bad, but helping out a friend is unequivocally good. Flitting from conversation to conversation at a mixer looking for the person who can be of the most use to you is shallow and annoying, but engaging in meaningful conversations with as many people as possible helps everyone have a good time and get something out of the event. If you view ambition as fundamentally negative, that’s fine: this article really isn’t for you. But I reject that notion myself; we all have the right--if not responsibility--to make the most of ourselves as we might, and to rise as high in society as we can.

...and How Everyone Else Can Too

Of course, the point of this article isn’t to point at what successful people do then encourage people to follow that template. There’s no shortage of material online doing just that, exhorting readers to get out their, network, and build their connections. And that’s all great, assuming it comes from a place of authenticity. For my own part, I’ll encourage you to check out Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People and Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone. There’s plenty of good material in each of these classics to get you started.

No, the point of this article is to talk about how technology can help create a future where the network-driven divide between the most and least successful no longer exists. You see, I think a massive opportunity has been missed by the technology in the market today.

Why is there no prominent social network for connecting successful professionals as mentors to the up-and-coming? Theoretically something like LinkedIn could play this role, but it doesn’t. I know plenty of my colleagues who would be excited for the opportunity to find ambitious young students interesting in hearing about their experience. And there’s no shortage of those students in the world. And yet there’s a failure in the marketplace: there’s nowhere that these two parties can aggregate to find each other at scale.

The network relationship management tools out there today fall woefully short of the needs of the market. This space is broadly encompassed by Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, which is exactly what it sounds like: a tool for selling things to customers. Many of my colleagues have repurposed these tools for their personal networking, but it’s really not what they’re designed for. As such, there’s a gaping hole in the market where professionals are looking for a networking aid and not finding one.

Imagine if this mentor/mentee social network also helped you identify other professionals with whom you share a common interest or passion. I, for instance, would make use of the network’s capability to meet other people in the Midwest excited about the ability of AI to shape our future. There’s no dominant medium for me to do that today. And how bizarre is that?

Imagine if this social network had tools for you to actively improve the strength of your existing connections. Rather than focusing on a conversion funnel that ends when you’ve “sold” as CRM solutions do, what if the network treated each of the people you knew as a lifelong relationship to be made as strong as possible? A platform with that focus would do things like tell you when a connection has a trending social media post that you could comment on. It would identify popular online articles that match the interests of your connections, flag the article to you, and remind you to send it to your connections with some of your own thoughts. And it would do all of this intelligently to make sure that you’re engaging with your connections on an appropriate cadence to keep the relationship top-of-mind while not being a nuisance.

I think it’s a travesty that this network doesn’t exist today. It’s frustrating for me personally: I wish that I had closer personal connections with the professionals that I know and such a tool would be an enormous help in that effort. But it’s borderline unacceptable that this platform doesn’t exist for someone like Jake. What if instead of logging on to Facebook a couple of times a day, the Jakes of the world could get on this platform and find people willing to help them out with knowledge, feedback, and introductions? Wouldn’t that be something.
Feb 20, 2017

China and the Pursuit of Artificial Intelligence

While the 20th century is marked by the rise and dominance of the United States, the next 100 years are being dubbed the Asian Century by many prognosticators. No country is driving this tectonic shift more than China, whose GDP has grown from $30B USD in 1952 to just over $11T in 2015. To give you an idea of its growth, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010. This year it will nearly triple Japan.

China--its government, corporations, and populace--is well-aware of the predictions concerning its imminent rise to global dominance and it’s doing everything it can to make those predictions a reality. It’s investing heavily in national infrastructure, education, and a favorable business environment. And yes, it’s investing in artificial intelligence.

Note: If you're already familiar with why the race for AI matters, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs
It’s beyond the scope of this article to give a full treatment to the importance of AI in a world power’s development, but it is worth a little context. Depending on how much of a nerd you are, you may or may not be aware that computers are now better at recognizing faces, identifying objects, playing Go, and--in some ways--driving than humans are. We’re in the middle of an AI “spring” - driven largely by advances in a technology called deep learning.

The exciting things happening in the field of AI today are cause enough for any country to roll up its sleeves and get involved. The economic use cases are becoming more and more obvious by the day. But that’s not why any of this really matters. To understand that, you need to look ahead.

Futurists lay out three “ages” of artificial intelligence development. We are currently in the first one: the age of artificial narrow intelligence (ANI). In other words, the AI applications being developed today are applicable to only narrow fields (playing Go, for instance). ANI will eventually be followed by artificial general intelligence (AGI), or human-level artificial intelligence. This will be when computers can do anything--more or less--that humans are capable of. AGI will then, at some point, give way to artificial superintelligence (ASI), or the ability for computers to perform cognitive tasks well beyond the scope of human ability.

AGI and ASI may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but there is good cause to be thinking about it now. You see, the median AI expert believes that AGI will be developed by 2040. Computers could be as capable as humans 23 years from now.

As if that wasn’t exciting (or frightening, depending on your mindset) enough, the most aggressive futurists believe that the advent of AGI will be very closely followed by the development of ASI. Some believe that the gap between the two could be as short as a few days. The reality is that we don’t have nearly sophisticated enough of an understanding of the underlying dynamics to truly predict how long that “take off” period will be. But that doesn’t change that some intelligent people with deep knowledge of the space believe it’s possible.

Accordingly, there is an argument that the first organization to develop AGI will also be the last. That such an intelligence would prevent the development of any other through its superhuman capabilities and desire to survive. Without assigning Skynet-style agency to the system itself, imagine yourself in the shoes of the government with such a power in hand. If it gave you the capability to prevent any of your competitors from catching up, wouldn’t you be tempted to use it for that very purpose?

Every major world power and technology company in the world is aware of these predictions and possible scenarios. China is unique in that it is well-positioned to be that originator of AGI and may be the only country with the capability to organize and unify itself toward that effort.

China and AI: A Modern Tale

Outside of the United States, no country is pushing further faster in the field of AI than China. This stems in large part from China’s rise in computing power more broadly. At the turn of the century, China didn’t have a single entrant among the world’s fastest supercomputers. Today, they top the charts. More disturbingly for the U.S., China’s Sunway TaihuLight achieves its 5x advantage over other supercomputers using chips sourced solely from China. This is a direct result of the 2015 decision by the U.S. Department of Commerce to ban the sale of Intel Xeon chips to Chinese manufacturers.

Given that the current AI spring is largely driven by the improvements in computing capability necessary to train powerful deep learning models, China’s supercomputer dominance gives it one of the key building blocks for an advantage in AI (though it’s worth noting that GPU computation power is proving to be more relevant than CPU for AI). Of course, that’s not enough. Software algorithms are driving much of the progress in AI as well, and China is at the forefront of driving that innovation.

While artificial intelligence was a commercial failure throughout the early part of this century, its development continued to push forward through the tireless efforts of the academic community. This is as true in China as it is in the U.S. Academic research in China largely comes out of two institutes: Tsinghua University and Nanjing University of Science and Technology. Tsinghua is ranked as the #2 computer science university in the world by U.S. News, mostly off the strength of its academic research publishing.

In fact, according to a special report on AI released by the White House in October, China is now responsible for more published academic research in the field of deep learning than the U.S. Of course, not all research is created equal. But it’s worth noting that China also beats out the U.S. on publications that have been cited at least once.

This fact comes as a shock to many in the AI space in the western world. And therein lies one of the major problems: most practitioners in the U.S. and U.K. simply aren’t aware of what is happening in China. Much of the news and research is never translated into English and doesn’t make its way into the standard TechCrunch-esque western media outlets. The result is a mass ignorance--and correlated underestimation--of the AI capabilities of China as a whole. A recent Andrew Ng quote to the New York Times illustrates this phenomenon perfectly: “There are many occasions of something being simultaneously invented in China and elsewhere, or being invented first in China and then later making it overseas. But then U.S. media reports only on the U.S. version. This leads to a misperception of those ideas having been first invented in the U.S.”

Andrew Ng himself is one of the very rare bridges between the AI communities of the U.S. and China. Ng’s parents were originally from Hong Kong, but he was born in the U.K. and educated in the U.S. He rose to international popularity first as a researcher and professor at Stanford University, working on projects like the Stanford autonomous helicopter. In 2011, Ng founded the Google Brain project. Later, in 2014, he joined Baidu as their chief scientist, heading their artificial intelligence work. Ng is perhaps best known for his online machine learning course, which originated from Stanford but was spun up into Coursera due to the hundreds of thousands of students that it attracted.

In some ways, Andrew Ng has served as an ambassador for Chinese AI in the U.S. He is one of the few voices representing China that practitioners in the western world get consistent exposure to. And a strong voice it is: Ng consistently appears in lists of top AI researchers to know and follow.

Under Andrew Ng’s supervision, the Baidu research lab has gained world-wide recognition. It currently claims to have the world’s top voice-to-text technology (though there is no standard benchmark for comparison to Microsoft or IBM) and is looking to mass-produce driverless cars within 5 years. The lab scored a major victory just last month when it announced that it had attracted former Microsoft executive Qi Lu.

Baidu isn’t the only Chinese tech giant diving head first into this battlefield. Tencent (operators of WeChat) established its own lab about a year ago, and has grown to about 30 researchers. Didi, the Chinese equivalent of Uber, has established an AI lab of its own to delve into the world of autonomous vehicles. Given the glacial speed at which most of the world’s governments move in the realm of technology, these sorts of large corporate initiatives play a major role in pushing the ball forward.

Naturally, much of the innovation is happening at the earlier stages of the technology company spectrum. Chinese venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have seized upon the opportunity to pour expertise and money into the space. Sinovation Ventures, for instance, has invested $100M into 25 different AI startups. Although industry-wide statistics are more difficult to come by than they are in the U.S., investment in Chinese AI startups looks to have been over $400M in 2016.

While in many domains within the AI realm Chinese technologists are busy playing catch-up, there are signs that the country has promise for new innovation. Baidu’s voice-to-text capabilities are one. Other under-the-radar innovations include one of the most lifelike--albeit creepy--robots in the world and one of the most public implementations of natural language generation for sports news coverage during the Rio Olympics.

Supporting all of this progress is an official strategy by the Chinese government to create a $15B AI market by 2018. Although public details of this strategy are vanishingly thin, even just the indication of support is powerful in comparison with the relative governmental silence in the U.S. Whereas 2016 saw some promising strides toward the encouragement of AI development in the U.S., the new federal administration has yet to communicate any kind of technology strategy. In comparison to the centralized efforts of the Chinese economy against 5 year plans, there is little hope for a cogent organized strategy by the U.S. government in the near future.

Of course, governmental involvement in innovation can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, no private organization has the same ability to muster attention and resources on a single effort. On the other, the government’s capacity to stifle development out of fear is very real, with abundant historical precedent. I would argue that China has the advantage on this dimension as well. The drive for technological supremacy is central to China’s broader development strategy and the government is in a better position to take control of any kind of step-change outcome. America, on the other hand, has limited infrastructure for taking control of technological innovation. The U.S. government is far more likely to simply restrict such developments than it is to invest heavily in the development of AGI by a private corporation.

Looking Forward

To be clear, the purpose of this article is not to present an imminent “red scare” type of threat from China’s pursuit of artificial intelligence. To put things in perspective, Baidu spent $1.5B on R&D in 2015. Google by itself spent $12.3B. No one questions that the United States is the current leader in the AI race.

Rather, this is a call for open-mindedness. The current view of Chinese activity in the field of AI is dominated by fog: a mass ignorance that prevents many of us (myself included) from having an accurate perspective of the future. Given how important it is to advance the development of ever-more-powerful AI in a responsible way, I don’t think that ignorance is acceptable.

I encourage all of us to more proactively seek out the latest news from the Chinese AI community, learn from it, and promote it. If anyone has a good list of resources or is willing to collaborate with me to pull one together, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Where possible, we should all seek to collaborate with Chinese--and other international--researchers and practitioners to push our collective understanding and pursuit of the responsible development of AI.

==3/3/17 Addition==
Thanks to Christian Horn for bringing Face++ to my attention, a Chinese startup that sells facial recognition services (one of its largest customers is Alibaba). Face++ is rumored to be worth $1B. Also iCarbonX, which has raised nearly $200M.
Feb 1, 2017

Thoughts On Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

My friend, Ablorde, got my Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! for Christmas. The book wasn't on my radar at all: I knew Feynman was a prominent scientist (I probably could have come up with physicist if pressed), but not much beyond that. I certainly didn't know he had a semi-autobiographical book (two, actually). But Ablorde's recommendation mirrored those on the book's cover: outrageously funny anecdotes from a brilliant mind.

Ablorde, et. al weren't wrong: Feynman is funny. The collection is a loosely connected series of stories laying out Feynman's life: from his early explorations in fostering his intellectual curiosity as a child to winning the Nobel Prize. He colors outside those lines fairly frequently: talking about his love (lust?) of women, dancing, and exploring life. You very quickly realize that this isn't a crusty old man who just fiddles with equations in the evenings. But as open as Feynman is about certain elements of his personal life, he's also conspicuously quiet on others.

Over the course of his life, Feynman was married three times. The only context in which he mentions his first wive is her infirmity (she dies of tuberculosis). He spends some more on the second: a proposal via letter, an exhausting honeymoon that he didn't enjoy, a quick flame of a marriage (just a couple of years), and then collapse amid continuous argument. He mentions his third wife only enough to know that she existed.

One of the things that stood out for me from the book is how much our societal expectations around the treatment of gender and race have evolved in a relatively short time. Feynman wasn't beating women or leading lynch mobs (as far as I know), but the sheer insensitivity with which he talks about women and minorities is bizarre and foreign to my modern sensibilities. One chapter is on his firmly-learned lesson that his romantic results improved inversely with the quality and consideration with which he treated women.

Unfortunately, the most prominent emotions I felt from the book weren't levity or humor. It actually made me sad. Feynman strikes me as a consummate liar. I can't go so far as to say that he's compensating for some darker aspect of his life that he can't address directly, but there's enough evidence in the book to suggest that most of his stories are exaggerated to the point that they bear little resemblance to reality. I know that's the whole point (reference the title) and people think it's funny, but it just makes me sad for some reason.

That being said, it wasn't all gloomy. I found the story quite inspiring. Feynman values hard work, modesty, and rationality. He achieves great success and notability through the diligent application of those values.