SAN FRANCISCO – Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt says artificial intelligence is key to advances in diverse areas such as healthcare and datacenter design and that security concerns related to it are somewhat misguided. (Alphabet is the parent company of Google).
In a wide-ranging on-stage conversation here at the RSA Security conference with Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of The Great A.I. Awakening, Schmidt shared his insights from decades of work related to AI (he studied AI as a PhD student 40 years ago) and why the technology seems to finally be hitting its stride.
In fact, last year Google CEO Sundar Pichai said AI is what helps the search giant build better products over time. "We will move from a mobile-first to an AI-first world,” he said.
Asked about that, Schmidt said that Google is still very much focused on mobile advances. “Going from mobile first to AI first doesn’t mean you stop doing one of those,” he said.
Google’s approach to AI is to take the algorithms it develops and apply them to business problems. “AI works best when it has a lot of training data to learn from,” he said. For example, Google used AI to develop picture search, using computer vision and training the system to recognize the difference between a gazelle and a lion after showing it thousands of pictures of each. “That same mechanism applies to many things,” he said.
As for business problems, Schmidt said Google’s top engineers work to make their data centers as efficient as possible. “But using AI we’ve been able to get a 15 percent improvement in power use.”
In healthcare, Schmidt said machine learning can help with medical diagnosis and predict the best course of treatment. “We’re at the point where if you have numeric sequence, (AI software) can predict what the following number will be. That’s healthcare. People go to the hospital to find out what’s going to happen next and we have small projects that I think show it can be done (using AI).”
Schmidt said because computer vision technology is much better than human vision it can review millions of pictures – far beyond what a human being could process – to better identify problem areas. Speech recognition systems are also capable of understanding far more than humans do. But these are tools, he said, for humans to leverage. “Computers have vision and speech, that’s not the same as AI,” he said.
Lewis-Kraus addresses fears that if AI systems become self-aware they could threaten humanity. “The work in AI going on now is doing pretty much what we think it’s supposed to do. At what point can the system self-modify? That’s worth a discussion, but we are nowhere near any of those stages, we’re still in baby steps,” said Schmidt. “You have to think in terms of ten, 20 or 30 years …. We’re not facing any danger now.”
Keep the internet open
Schmidt also raised concern that security fears and other factors could lead governments to limit access to the internet as countries such as China already do. “I am extremely worried about the likelihood countries will block the openness and interconnectedness we have today. I wrote a book on it (The New Digital Age),” he said.
“I fear the security breaches and attacks on the internet will be used as a pretext to shut down access,” Schmidt said, adding he would like to see governments come to an agreement and mechanisms to keep access to the Internet open. In the area of AI he wants to see the industry push to make sure research stays out in the open and not controlled by military labs.
Addressing the hall packed with security professionals, Schmidt made the case for open research, noting that historically companies never want to share anything about their research. “We’ve taken opposite view to build a large ecosystem that is completely transparent because it will get fixed faster,” he said. “Maybe there are some weaknesses, but I would rather do it that way because there are thousands of you who will help plug it.
“Security is not one layer. Naïve engineers say they can build a better firewall, but that’s not really how things work …. If you build a system that is perfect and closed, you will find out it’s neither perfect or closed.”