Saturday, August 3, 2019

Author Interview: Charles Jennings

Entrepreneur and author Charles Jennings wants to help non-techies understand artificial intelligence (AI). His new book, Artificial Intelligence: Rise of the Lightspeed Learners is a short and fascinating introduction to how AI affects our lives today and what's in store for the future.

Charles recently talked with Rose City Reader about AI, his new book, and strategies for controlling this brave new technology.

Can you explain for those not in the field what Artificial Intelligence is and what you mean by “Lightspeed Learners”?

Artificial Intelligence, now generally known as AI, is self-learning software. Which means, basically, it has a mind of its own. (The term “artificial intelligence” emerged at a 1956 conference and stuck, but the more you discover about it, the more you realize there is nothing artificial about this intelligence.)

According to Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Sam Harris, Internet inventor Vint Cerf and many other contemporary high-tech thinkers, AI is the most important technology in human history. Think of AIs as a new intelligent species that has just popped up in our ecosystem. Like dolphins or orangutans, only smarter.

I coined the term Lightspeed Learners to highlight what is both most unique and most important about AIs: they leverage our massively connected global infrastructure to learn very, very quickly. Today, this learning occurs inside narrow swim lanes; tomorrow, who knows?

What is your work background? How did it lead you to writing your book?

I’ve been both an entrepreneur and a writer all my life. In 1992, I started my first tech company, which in 1999 had a welcome IPO; in 2014, I started my (probably) last company, an AI startup partnered with Caltech/JPL. What I learned, 2014–17 as a CEO in the AI industry, made me want to sound alarm bells. Hence this book.

Why did you write Artificial Intelligence: Rise of the Lightspeed Learners?

First, speaking as a writer, AI is a great story. So it’s fun to write about. Second, I’m convinced that the more Americans know and understand about AI, the better. So I gave myself the challenge of explaining AI through stories, and by examining AI’s big existential questions at the level of a good Trevor Noah Show.

Who is the audience for your book?

Book readers and audiobook listeners who like good stories, are curious in general, care about the future of humanity, and are not afraid of a few basic tech terms.

What do you think is the best thing AI will bring to our future?

A deeper appreciation of what it means to be human.

What is the biggest risk AI poses for our future?

Short term, AI war. We need an International Atomic Energy Commission type treaty between U.S. and China on AI yesterday, controlling the use of AI by warfighters. Longer term—say by 2030—AIs will literally be beyond human control. The threat won’t be Skynet. It’ll be the electric grid with an AI brain who, in a crisis, takes matters into its own hands. We’ll need sophisticated international AI control strategies by 2030—which means we need to start working now!

Can you recommend additional books or resources for people who want to learn more about AI?

We’re in the midst now of a massive AI information tsunami. If you read nothing else on AI in the next year, read the first 60 pages of MIT professor Max Tegmark’s book, Life 3.0. To learn more about AI science and technology, there is no better source than any Andrew Ng video on YouTube (Stanford professor and founder of Google Brain). And Elon Musk on AI is always worth a listen.

What did you learn from writing your book that most surprised you?

Great question…easy answer. While researching the book, I came across a scientific paper signed by 51 legitimate AI scientific researchers, most working in big tech companies, asserting that the most common result of AI research is surprise. AIs doing the unexpected, solving problems well outside the box. I write about this paper extensively in Chapter 3 of my book.

What’s next for you?

I’m promoting my audiobook, which I think is better than the print version, frankly; and writing op eds and blog posts on the role of AI in society—with a special focus on the 2020 election.



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