Why Andrew Ng teaches humans to teach computers AI visionary
PALO ALTO, Calif.
Andrew Ng has led teams at Google and Baidu that have gone on to create self-learning computer programs used by hundreds of millions of people, including email spam filters and touch-screen keyboards that make typing easier by predicting what you might want to say next.
As a way to get machines to learn without supervision, he has trained them to recognize cats in YouTube videos without being told what cats were. And he revolutionized this field, known as artificial intelligence, by adopting graphics chips meant for video games.
To push the boundaries of artificial intelligence further, one of the world’s most renowned researchers in the field says many more humans need to get involved. So his focus now is on teaching the next generation of AI specialists to teach the machines.
Nearly 2 million people around the globe have taken Ng’s online course on machine learning. In his videos, the lanky, 6-foot-1 Briton of Hong Kong and Singaporean upbringing speaks with a difficult-to-place accent . He often tries to get students comfortable with mind-boggling concepts by acknowledging up front, in essence, that “hey, this stuff is tough.”
Ng sees AI as a way to “free humanity from repetitive mental drudgery.” He has said he sees AI changing virtually every industry, and any task that takes less than a second of thought will eventually be done by machines. He once said famously that the only job that might not be changed is his hairdresser’s – to which a friend of his responded that in fact, she could get a robot to do his hair.
At the end of a 90-minute interview in his sparse office in Palo Alto, Calif., he reveals what’s partially behind his ambition.
“Life is shockingly short,” the 41-year-old computer scientist says, swiveling his laptop into view. He’s calculated in a Chrome browser window how many days we have from birth to death: a little more than 27,000. “I don’t want to waste that many days.”
TEACHING HOW TO TEACH COMPUTERS
Ng’s fascination with AI was paralleled by a desire to share his knowledge with students. As online education took off earlier this decade, Ng discovered a natural outlet.
His “Machine Learning” course, which kicked off Stanford’s online learning program alongside two other courses in 2011, immediately signed up 100,000 people without any marketing effort.
A year later, he co-founded the online-learning startup Coursera. More recently, he left his high-profile job at Baidu to launch deeplearning.ai , a startup that produces AI-training courses.
Every time he’s started something big, whether it’s Coursera, the Google Brain deep learning unit, or Baidu’s AI lab, he has left once he felt the teams he has built can carry on without him.