In just the past few years, artificial intelligence (AI) has transformed from a futuristic, sci-fi scenario into an emerging technology that has been embraced by the world’s largest and most powerful corporations – including Google and Facebook.
At the same time, an influential group of thinkers has emerged who are guiding the public’s discussion of AI and charting the path for the next generation of AI technologies.
1) Ray Kurzweil
In many ways, Ray Kurzweil is the original pioneer of AI technologies.
For more than two decades, he has been talking about the extraordinary potential for AI technologies to eventually surpass the computing possibilities of humankind.
And Kurzweil has been leading the charge when it comes to cutting-edge AI projects such as building computers that can precisely mimic the inner workings of the human brain.
One of Kurzweil’s most controversial theses is called ‘The Singularity‘. As Kurzweil sees it, machine computing power and human computing power are merging, and that’s leading to a point within the next 20 years where man and machine will become one.
Instead of tapping on computer keyboards and asking Google for answers to our questions, all of that knowledge will be inside our brains. We will literally “download” whatever we need, including the ability to speak foreign languages.
Kurzweil is currently leading the AI efforts at Google, where he has championed the creation of many new Google AI technologies. In fact, he has become so influential within Silicon Valley that Alphabet (the parent company of Google) is now seeking to redefine itself as an AI-first company.
2) Nick Bostrom
If Kurzweil is leading the charge on imagining a futuristic world where man and machine are one, then Nick Bostrom is doing perhaps the opposite: he is at the forefront of warning the world of the potential perils of unchecked AI.
He has been sounding the alarm that researchers and corporations need to be doing more to understand the ethical, legal and moral implications of AI. Basically, he wants humans to prepare for the time when machines’ intelligence surpasses that of humans.
Bostrom’s most influential work is, “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.” In it, he warns of the very real possibility that modern AI will become so advanced and so powerful that it will lead to a “superintelligence” capable of controlling humanity.
This sounds like a plot for a Hollywood movie (and, in fact, it is the plot narrative of the recent Johnny Depp movie called “Transcendence”), and it has captured the imagination of everyday people who had previously never thought about the real-world implications of AI.
One of Bostrom’s biggest supporters is Microsoft legend Bill Gates, who has urged his supporters to consider Bostrom’s arguments.
3) Max Tegmark
If you loved the “Matrix” movies, then one AI researcher you need to know is MIT professor Max Tegmark. A physicist by training, Tegmark has speculated that the entire known universe might actually be an advanced computer simulation.
In layman’s terms, we might all be living in the Matrix and not even know it. His most famous work is “Our Mathematical Universe,” in which he lays out the basic arguments for why he believes that the universe is a mathematical structure and computer simulation. And he has followed up that groundbreaking work with “Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of AI”.
4) Yann LeCun
While LeCun might not be as famous as Kurzweil, Bostrom or Tegmark, he is arguably the most important of all of them. As the Chief AI scientist at Facebook’s research division, he is at the forefront of using artificial intelligence to change the way the world’s largest and most powerful social network operates.
His background is in machine learning and computer vision: teaching computers how to see just like humans. He is also the creator of various neural network models and algorithms that are designed to make computers think just like biological organisms.
LeCun’s AI interests might sound futuristic until you consider that Facebook’s photo recognition tool – in which Facebook can identify names and faces in nearly any photo that you upload to the social network – is powered by machine learning.
And now data privacy activists are warning that Facebook’s ability to collect nearly unlimited data on its users (whether via the Facebook app, Instagram, Whatsapp or Messenger), combined with the company’s growing AI prowess, could put everyday users at risk.
Imagine a world where Facebook partners with the government to help keep tabs on its citizens. (That concept, in fact, became the basis for the recent Hollywood movie “The Circle” starring Emma Watson.)
5) Andrew Ng
If there is one person who is responsible for bringing AI and machine learning to the masses, it might just be Andrew Ng.
He is the founder of the online education platform Coursera, which specializes in delivering massively open online courses (MOOCs) to people around the world. And some of Coursera’s most popular offerings now include courses related to AI and machine learning.
At one time, you needed to attend a prestigious U.S. school like MIT or Stanford to learn about AI – now you can be from the poorest nation in the world, and still have a chance to get in on the AI revolution.
Ng’s credentials are more than impressive. He has been an associate professor at Stanford in computer science and he is one of the pioneers behind Google’s deep learning initiatives. He has also worked on the creation of AI-powered robots. Until recently, he was the chief data scientist at Baidu, often referred to as “China’s Google.”
These are the world’s Top 5 leading AI thinkers. There are good reasons to follow all of them, of course.
In addition to these AI researchers, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are the other two influential figures in the mainstream media who’ve been talking about AI, mostly about how AI could turn into an existential risk if not handled well.
It is Musk who has helped frame AI as an “existential technology,” meaning that its continued rapid advancement might have very serious implications for the future existence of the human race.
Thankfully, a conscious deliberation in the AI community has begun over the risks technology can bring. Max Tegmark, mentioned above, has started a great initiative towards building Friendly AI. Apparently, hundreds of researchers have joined the project.
And guess who funded Tegmark’s initiative with a cool $10 million cheque? It’s that SpaceX guy, Elon Musk.