“AI is one of the most important things humanity is working on. It is more profound than, I dunno, electricity or fire.” Those words were not uttered from the lips of a stoned Gizmodo staffer, but said on a stage at a Recode- and NBC-sponsored “town hall” in San Francisco last month by Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
Pichai loves him some artificial intelligence. As moderator Kara Swisher noted during the event, Google employs the most AI researchers in the world. It’s at the heart of Google’s business. When Pichai announced the Pixel phone in 2016 and the Pixel 2 in 2017, a big part of the pitch was how AI “empowered” those phones. But saying, in 2018, that AI is more profound than electricity or fire—both of which are necessary for powering the servers that house the AI—is pretty damn absurd.
That did not stop Pichai from saying it, or from doubling down when moderator Kara Swisher said, “Fire? Fire is pretty good.”
Pichai responded with “Well, it kills people, too. We have learned to harness fire for the benefits of humanity, but we had to overcome its downsides, too. So my point is, AI is really important, but we have to be concerned about it.”
Pichai was trying to explain how profound an effect—both positive and negative—AI could have on humanity.
And if you’ve cracked open a sci-fi book in the last 6o or 70 years, you’re probably aware of this. AI, and its potential to consume humanity, is one of the primary fears fed in science fiction. HAL, Skynet, and those weird-ass robots in The Matrix are all the results of humans seeking to do less by creating a virtual sentient slave that could do more.
But Pichai sounds a little ridiculous saying he’s mindful of the potential even as his company works to create faster and smarter AI. You sound pretty stupid saying, “Sure, AI could one day usher in a nuclear winter, but this early version lets you google ‘kittens hugging’ and actually shows you pictures of kittens hugging.” Bro, you’re still contributing to the eventual nuclear winter.
The fact is, AI is still in its infancy. Its potential, to damn us or save us, is still so far from being realised as to reside firmly in the realm of fantasy. Saying it is as profound as electricity or fire—products of our natural world that were harnessed, not fabricated in Mountain View office complex by some guys fat on Del Taco—is an obscenely arrogant thing to say.
But it’s just one of the many head-scratchers uttered by Pichai and his fellow guest, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki. The hour-long conversation is surprisingly frank. These are wildly rich and intelligent people proudly talking about their hopes and accomplishments without a filter. There’s no PR person to step in and tell them to stop talking. So you get gems like Pichai’s one above.
You also get Wojcicki saying the reason there aren’t more women in Silicon Valley is because not enough women are in the educational pipeline, which she thinks “has to do with this perception that the computer industry is a geeky, not very interesting, not social industry.” This is one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley saying the problems with systemic sexism stems from girls finding computers nerdy.