Q&A: Andrew Ng, the Authority on A.I.
ANDREW NG, A 42-YEAR-OLD COMPUTER SCIENCE professor at Stanford University, made his name leading artificial intelligence efforts at two of the world’s biggest tech companies, Google and Baidu. Last year he suddenly left Baidu, and over the next many months he launched three high-profile A.I. initiatives of his own: a series of online A.I. courses called deeplearning.ai, a business called Landing AI that develops artificial intelligence for manufacturing companies, and an incubator for startups known as the AI Fund. Fortune spoke with Ng about why he left the world of Big Tech, what’s next for his projects and his fi eld, and what the rise of artificial intelligence might mean for the rest of us.
FORTUNE: First, let’s talk about Landing AI. Who are your customers, and what are you building for them?
Andrew Ng: We’re helping companies figure out what it means to become a great A.I. company. Google Brain, which I led, was arguably the single biggest force for turning Google into a great A.I. company. I’m pretty sure I led the team that transformed Baidu as well. So one thing that really excites me is the potential for other companies to become great A.I. companies. How much worse off would the world be if we didn’t have electricity or if we didn’t have the Internet? A.I. is like that. When you look at the overall impact on society, the benefit is so huge that we just can’t imagine what the world was like before.
You left Baidu last year to start your own ventures. Why? What was missing from your life in Big Tech?
Baidu and Google are great companies, but there are a lot of things you can do outside them. Just as electricity and the Internet transformed the world, I think the rise of modern A.I. technology will create a lot of opportunities both for new startups and for incumbent companies to transform. With the rise of the Internet, older companies like Microsoft and Apple transformed, even though they weren’t Internet companies before. But there were also startups: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Baidu. So, too, with A.I. Look at the three teams I’m involved in: The AI Fund is involved in creating new companies from scratch, Landing AI is involved in helping incumbent companies do A.I., and deeplearning.ai is for everyone else.
You launched the AI Fund in January with $175 million in funding. Where have you invested that money?
There are two companies that the AI Fund has invested in—Woebot and Landing AI—and the AI Fund has a number of internal teams working on new projects. We usually bring in people as employees, work with them to turn ideas into startups, then have the entrepreneurs go into the startup as founders.
Some people would argue that it’s difficult for startups to compete because the Internet and other effects help big companies compound their power. Isn’t it inevitable that big tech companies will offer products similar to yours and make it more difficult for you to compete?
Microsoft seemed like the 800-pound gorilla 15 or 20 years ago. Now we have Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Uber and Airbnb used the rise of mobile [computing] to become great companies. I think the rise of A.I. is bigger than the rise of mobile. Large companies are sometimes as worried about startups as startups are about large companies. Ultimately it will be about who delivers the best service or product.
When do you think factories might be fully automated?
It depends on your definition of fully automated. I’ve been in factories with very few people—giant buildings with only 200 employees. I think what’s changed is that instead of doing manual work, a lot of these people are operations people and software engineers—highly skilled and working with machines.
What happens to the medium-skilled people who in the past might have been working on the factory floor?
There have been a lot of reports written about the hollowing out of the middle class. I think society’s best solution to that is education, so that people in the middle and at the bottom can move up. Frankly, I really don’t see a solution other than education. The speed of change places more pressure on individuals to keep learning.
A lot of people in Silicon Valley support the idea of universal basic income—a guaranteed, no-strings-attached payment that everyone would get.
There’s a lot of value in the dignity of work. Rather than unconditional basic income, where you pay people for anything, I think we should pay people to study because that creates the structure for them to gain the skills they need to reenter the workforce. One of the hardest things about education is that while the long-term benefits are profound, there’s a short-term cost. Because people are better at optimizing for the short term, I think basic income can be conditional basic income where we pay people to study.
What’s your end goal for A.I.? What do you hope it will accomplish?
Every time there’s a technological disruption, we’re given an opportunity to remake large parts of the world. I would like the world to be fairer, I would like everyone to have better access to opportunities and education, I would like to relieve people of menial tasks, I would like democracy to run better. I really believe that with technology, we can remake large parts of the world to be much better than they are today. I wouldn’t bother working so hard if I didn’t fundamentally believe that.
A version of this article appears in the October 1, 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Authority On A.I.”