The Optimistic Promise of Artificial Intelligence

Written by WSJ

Tong Zhang and Andrew Ng

Artificial intelligence may be one of the technology world’s current obsessions, but many people find it scary, envisioning robots taking over the world.

Two top experts in the field— Andrew Ng, a Stanford University adjunct professor and former AI scientist at Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Chinese internet giant Baidu Inc., and Tong Zhang, executive director of the AI Lab at Tencent Holdings Ltd. —sat down with The Wall Street Journal’s global technology editor, Jason Dean, to explain why they believe the opportunities associated with this technology far outweigh the bad.

Edited excerpts follow.

MR. DEAN: Let’s start with the scary stuff because that’s the most fun. The title of this panel refers to “the singularity,” or the idea that artificial intelligence will become so powerful that robots will take over. Andrew, I know you’re skeptical of that. What should we be worried about with AI and where are the biggest opportunities?

MR. NG: Worrying about evil AI robots today is a lot like worrying about overpopulation on the planet Mars. You know, some day we might get to Mars and we might actually overpopulate it and we’ll need to worry about it then. But today, we haven’t even landed on Mars yet, so I don’t know how to productively work on that problem.

Having gotten the scary stuff out of the way, I think AI is the new electricity. Whatever industry you work in, AI will probably transform it, just as 100 years ago the rise of electricity transformed industry after industry—everything from transportation and communications to manufacturing to health care.

So I hope that whatever industry you’re in, you’ll figure out how to leverage AI because I think it will create new winners and losers in almost every category.

MR. DEAN: Tong, do you share that basic optimism?

MR. ZHANG: Yes. Nowadays, AI can solve a lot of specialized problems, in some cases even better than humans. But there is no single solution for AI to solve all problems simultaneously.

It takes a lot of human effort to deliver a specialized AI system for medicine, for example. And that doesn’t translate to other problems as easily as some people might think. That isn’t singularity. That’s far from it.

MR. DEAN: Part of the hype around AI is that every company in the technology industry and even some that aren’t are saying, “Oh, we’re doing great stuff with AI.” It can be hard to tell how much of that is real and how much of that is baloney. Where do you think there is more malarkey than actual substance in the AI talk?

MR. NG: Here is one pattern that might be useful for spotting when AI might affect your industry or some other industry you care about. First, the industry is digitized, meaning activity is moved to computers. That creates data, which gives AI an opportunity to come in and eat the data and automate decisions or do things more intelligently.

The single most lucrative application of AI today might be online advertising, or deciding what ad to show people. Because the online advertising realm has always been a digital realm, there is tons of data, and as a result, the AI for that is very sophisticated today. The fintech industry is another area where a lot has moved to the digital realm. Health care is a bit further behind. So is construction. But you see this pattern where first comes digitization, which creates data, and then comes the AI.

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    While there have been some very good advances in AI over the past decade, I have also heard the exact same promises for more than 3 decades now. Thus far, few predictions have even come close to fruition. I am very apprehensive to buy into much of this.

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