It’s Time To Get Real About Artificial Intelligence

Nov 14, 2016

Silicon Valley has a long tradition of making too much of a good thing. Despite my enthusiasm for artificial intelligence—I declared my affection here a month ago—it’s plain to see we are in a major AI hype cycle.

As evidence, I cite an immutable law of hype, the Dinner Topic Theorem. Last week the Aspen Institute hosted a fascinating discussion about the ethics of artificial intelligence. (More on one buzzkill moment from that dinner in a bit.) This week Benchmark Capital, the venture firm, has convened a dinner to discuss “the reality and hype of AI.” On the very same night, I’ll be in Los Angeles where Fortune and our sister site TheDrive will host a panel on the ethics of autonomous vehicles, which are based on AI. Over the weekend the World Economic Forum released a survey that said AI tops the list of technologies in need of better governance. (One can safely assume a dinner was involved.)

So what’s the problem? Like many hyped subjects before it, AI won’t do all everyone expects it to. And it won’t make money for everyone who slaps the buzzword on their latest project.

There’s also the problem of semantics. Jerry Kaplan, a storied Silicon Valley entrepreneur who now teaches AI at Stanford, said at that Aspen Institute gathering that AI has become a misnomer, at least in how people understand it. AI is not so much about machines becoming intelligent and then dominating humans, says Kaplan, as it is about the “continuation of longstanding efforts to automate tasks, dating back at least to the start of the industrial revolution.”

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I’m still a believer that AI is a really big thing—so much so that Fortune has asked Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist and a renowned researcher in machine learning and robotics, to speak at our annual dinner at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. AI and its related technologies are the next wave for sure. Just keep in mind that big waves are tough to surf. Approach them with caution. And humility.

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