Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng has said artificial intelligence is "the new electricity" in his assessment of how it will rapidly and unexpectedly change society.

Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng has said artificial intelligence is "the new electricity" in his assessment of how it will rapidly and unexpectedly change society.

Chances are, you’ve already encountered artificial intelligence today.

Did your email spam filter keep junk out of your inbox? Did you find this site through Google? Did you encounter a targeted ad on your way?

We constantly hear that we’re on the verge of an AI revolution, but the technology is already everywhere. And Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng predicts that smart technology will help humans do even more. It will drive our cars, read our X-rays and affect pretty much every job and industry. And this will happen soon.

As AI rises, concerns grow about the future of humans. So how can we make sure our economy and our society are ready for a technology that could soon dominate our lives?


  • Andrew Ng Computer scientist and expert on artificial intelligence; co-founder and co-chairman, Coursera, a free massive on-line course; founding head, Google Brain, an artificial intelligence initiative; former vice president and chief scientist, Baidu, a Chinese digital services company

Should We Be Worried About AI?

There’s clearly some public anxiety about artificial intelligence.

And why wouldn’t there be? One of the smartest humans alive, Stephen Hawking, says AI could end mankind.

But the question isn’t whether to worry about AI, it’s what kind of AI to worry about.

Tesla founder Elon Musk recently warned a gathering of governors that they need to act now to put regulations the development of artificial intelligence. “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react, because it seems so ethereal,” he said.

This kind of concern should come with a caveat, which The Verge points out:

Musk is not talking about the sort of artificial intelligence that companies like Google, Uber, and Microsoft currently use, but what is known as artificial general intelligence — some conscious, super-intelligent entity, like the sort you see in sci-fi movies. Musk (and many AI researchers) believe that work on the former will eventually lead to the latter, but there are plenty of people in the science community who doubt this will ever happen, especially in any of our lifetimes.

To understand the threats AI may or may not pose to society, it’s best to understand the types of AI that do and don’t (yet) exist. Wait But Why has a great summary:

AI Caliber 1) Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI): Sometimes referred to as Weak AI, Artificial Narrow Intelligence is AI that specializes in one area. There’s AI that can beat the world chess champion in chess, but that’s the only thing it does. Ask it to figure out a better way to store data on a hard drive, and it’ll look at you blankly.

AI Caliber 2) Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): Sometimes referred to as Strong AI, or Human-Level AI, Artificial General Intelligence refers to a computer that is as smart as a human across the board—a machine that can perform any intellectual task that a human being can. Creating AGI is a much harder task than creating ANI, and we’re yet to do it. Professor Linda Gottfredson describes intelligence as “a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.” AGI would be able to do all of those things as easily as you can.

AI Caliber 3) Artificial Superintelligence (ASI): Oxford philosopher and leading AI thinker Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.” Artificial Superintelligence ranges from a computer that’s just a little smarter than a human to one that’s trillions of times smarter—across the board.

(Really, the full post is essential reading.)

Type 1 exists. This is what we use every day. This is what is reshaping our social networks, advertising and economy. The threat here is already visible. “Fake news” designed to hoax humans games algorithms to reach a wider audience. Automation is replacing human jobs.

Types 2 and 3 cause the anxiety. Futurist Michael Vassar, who has worked with AI, has used Nick Bostrom’s thinking on artificial intelligence to predict that “if greater-than-human artificial general intelligence is invented without due caution, it is all but certain that the human species will be extinct in very short order.”

Even though very smart people disagree over whether this AI will ever exist, the concept of a science-fiction dystopia is simultaneously terrifying and alluring. It’s easy to imagine a Terminator-like world where machines do battle with their human creators and think of it as both unlikely to happen in our lifetimes and also inevitable. And this can make it hard to think about taking steps to stop it from happening. At least one study has found that people are worried about smart machines killing them.

However, as the future of AI approaches, there are already noticeable problems in our ever-more automated present. The economy is reacting to the loss of jobs to machines. The algorithms that drive what information we see can be gamed to feed us misinformation, and even if they work as intended, they can lock us into only getting one side of every story.

“In our current society, automation pushes people out of jobs, making the people who own the machines richer and everyone else poorer. That is not a scientific issue; it is a political and socioeconomic problem that we as a society must solve,” wrote scientist Arend Hentz. “My research will not change that, though my political self – together with the rest of humanity – may be able to create circumstances in which AI becomes broadly beneficial instead of increasing the discrepancy between the one percent and the rest of us.”

This isn’t as exciting as imagining ED-209* on patrol in your town, and it doesn’t draw the same kind of headlines. On July 10, Axios published a report that Senator Maria Cantwell was planning to introduce legislation calling for an AI advisory committee in Washington that would look at how existing and developing technology could destroy jobs and enforce biases. It didn’t get much coverage beyond that. Of course, the legislation hasn’t been introduced yet, so the bill isn’t quite real. But neither is a killer robot.


What Worries You About AI?

To gauge your thoughts on artificial intelligence we employed an expert — a robot.

We asked the 1A Text Club (text 1A to 63735 to join, standard message rates may apply) if they would have a short conversation about artificial intelligence with a rudimentary bot. Most of the questions were multiple choice.

First, we asked if people were concerned about AI.

Next, the bot asked those who were concerned what they were concerned about.

Anyone who said “something else” was asked an open-ended question about what they were particularly concerned with. A number of people might have had the Pixar movie WALL-E on their minds, as they said they were worried AI do so much that humans become too complacent. “I think that an increase in AI will ‘dumb down’ humanity,” one respondent said. “I already see it in dependence on phones, calculators, GPS, etc. We even art and musicianship slipping down to repetition and recycling instead of fresh, creative ideas.”

With these grim scenarios in the air, the bot next asked who should stop this from happening. The plurality of respondents said the government should step in.

Those who said “someone else,” again got an open-ended question. Many of them suggested a combination of government and private business, or an independent commission.

It’s worth noting from the first question … most people who responded were not worried about artificial intelligence. “AI is still really dumb,” one person told us. “AI still cannot beat players in video games, so I’m not worried about them taking over in real life.”

“If we can utilize the technology wisely it will only improve our daily lives,” another said, while someone else told the robot, “Computers are designed to help mankind. Most AI’s are created to improve human life, it is unlikely robots will endanger humans willingly.”

And, of course, some people aren’t afraid at all of what the future might bring.

“Can’t stop technology,” a respondent told the robot. “Embrace its evolution. Besides, humans are cuter. ?”


If you’d like to talk to our robot yourself, text ROBOT to 63735. As usual, standard message rates may apply, and this will sign you up for 1A’s text club. You can text STOP to us any time to stop getting the messages.

The Artificial Intelligence Behind Alpha Go

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