An Engineer’s Guide to the Artificial Intelligence Galaxy

Commencement Speech, Engineering School of Columbia University
May 15, 2017 Class Day

By Kai-Fu Lee
Founder & CEO, Sinovation Ventures
President, Sinovation Ventures Artificial Intelligence Institute 

Kai-Fu Lee addresses the Class of 2017.
—Photo by Eileen Barroso

Thank you, Class of 2017. Thank you so much for inviting me to speak at this wonderful commencement ceremony. It’s an honor to be back at Columbia to address this distinguished group of graduates, parents, siblings and special guests. We’ve all gathered to share in the joy of this day.

First, I want to say to you graduates: I am so proud of all of you. You did it! Your families are proud of you. You have earned this day.

I remember sitting where you are 34 years ago, feeling that these were the best years of my life. I found the profession of my life: artificial intelligence. I found the hobby of my life — bridge; I played 30 hours a week, but to this date Columbia still wouldn’t give me a degree in it. And I had my first date while at Columbia, and she became the love of my life. And finally, on commencement day, I got to sit and listen to Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction writer. I’m sorry that you only get me.

Anyway, I had the best years of my life. This is where you expect me, or any commencement speaker to say, “These are the best years of your lives.” But I am not going to say that. I know that these are far from the best years of your lives. I know that your best days are yet to come. To be specific, my hope for you is that the next 10 years will be the best years in your lives.

Why 10 years? 10 years seem so far away. But really it is not. Checking in with May 2007 seems like a good way to visualize what 10 years can do in our world. It is interesting to remember that in 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. Back then, I was still using my Blackberry, and my wife was still using her Nokia. And in 2007, a young senator Barack Obama decided to run for President. And back in 2007, Donald Trump was still saying, “You are fired” rather than “Make America Great Again.” So 10 years can do a lot, but the next 10 will do much much more than the last 10. Why? Because, the next decade will be the Age of Artificial Intelligence, or AI.

As students, you’ve probably seen AI course enrollment go from 80 to 800. And that certainly is one leading indicator. I was introduced to AI at Columbia in 1980. As someone who has worked for 37 years on research, development, and investment in AI, I can speak with some authority that AI will be a revolution on the scale of the Industrial Revolution, probably larger, and definitely faster.

But this is not a hand-wavy futurist AI talk. This is an engineer-to-engineer talk. We know that AI works. We know that AI gets better with more data and more use. We know how to extrapolate it to measure its impact in ten years. Let’s first see what AI can do today.

Today, an AI image processing company that I invested in can make people’s selfies more beautiful, so much so that every Chinese movie star I know doesn’t allow her photo to be published without it. Its user base? 1.3 billion.

Today, an AI loan company that I invested in in China can approve a loan in seconds, with a default rate much lower than a human loan officer who would take days. This company is less than two years old, but will underwrite almost 30 million loans this year, more than almost any bank.

Today, an AI facial recognition company that I invested in can recognize any face from 3 million faces, with super-human accuracy. If installed in all the airports around the world, it would essentially prevent known terrorists or wanted criminals from entering any airplane.

These three AI companies are worth a total of about $10 billion. But that’s loose change compared to what can be built in the next 10 years.

In the next 10 years, all financial companies will be turned upside-down, with AI replacing traders, bankers, accountants, research analysts, and insurance companies. Last year, my AI investment algorithm returned 8 times more than my private banker. That reminds me—when I go home I am going to fire my private banker.

In the next 10 years, AI will replace most factory workers, assistants, advisors, and middlemen. But AI is not limited to simple jobs. AI will also replace many reporters, doctors, and teachers. Your AI assistant will know better than you what you would like to eat tonight, where you should go on vacation, and whom you should date.

But it doesn’t stop there. In 10 years, mechanical AI will become reliable. AI will be safer at driving cars than people, sweeping changes, as it were, brought by the lowly Roomba… will grow up and cook, wash, clean and handle all the household drudgery for us.

In 10 years, because AI will make so much money for humanity, we will enter the Age of Plenty, making strides to eradicate poverty and hunger, and giving all of us more spare time and freedom to do what we love.

In 10 years, because AI will replace half of human jobs, we will enter the Age of Confusion, and many people will become depressed as they lose the jobs and the corresponding self-actualization. And many of you will become parents concerned with how to improve education in order to prevent your children from being replaced by AI.

These predictions are not based on some hand-wavy comparison of the number of neurons possessed by humans and AI simulators. Rather, they are based on an engineer’s extrapolation based on known algorithms, and the real marketplace and workforce. 

In my company, we have raised over $1 billion to invest in these developments. Softbank has launched a $100 billion Vision Fund. The tech giants of the past 50 years – IBM, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, have all declared themselves to be AI companies. So even if you doubt me, you probably should not doubt all of them. So, for leading edge, super smart engineers like yourselves, 2027 should be the best of times in your lives. Unless you miss the AI revolution, in which case it may turn into the worst times in your lives.

Now let me give you three pieces of advice—how not to miss the Age of AI, so that you can have the time of your life.

My first is: Embrace AI, and align your career by betting on its inevitability. Like all big change, AI requires you to have an open mind. It’s OK to be fearful of change. As Mark Twain explained, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear. Not absence of fear.”

Your hard work has prepared you to confront, or simply accept, or warmly embrace change that will push you in new directions. Given what lies ahead, you must warmly embrace AI. While the first AI tools in your industry may appear fragile, be assured they will get better with data.

The three software companies I mentioned earlier, when they were first launched: often made people uglier, lost millions in bad loans, and thought I was some talk show celebrity. But given time and much more data, their self-learning made them dramatically better than people. Not only are they better, they don’t get tired nor emotional. They don’t go on strike, and they are infinitely scalable. With hardware, software, and networking costs coming down, all they cost is electricity.

So whatever domain you choose, be the first to use AI tools. If you’re a software engineer, use AI tools to check and optimize your code, to find re-usable code, or even to write new code. Use AI tools to hire and build your team. If you start your own company, use AI tools to manage your books and maximize your profits. Use AI tools to replace your customer support and your salespeople. Use robots to produce your goods and autonomous vehicles to deliver them.

The symbiotic combination of humans and AI is all about 1+1=3.  For example, when a doctor can correctly diagnose cancer, and save 70 lives out of 100, and an early AI tool can save 60 lives out of 100—together perhaps they can save 80 lives. And when the AI tool improves to saving 80 lives, perhaps together they can save 90.  So do not passively accept AI, but embrace AI, seek out AI, and find every which way that AI can help you. Learn AI, and find clever ways to build that symbiotic relationship earlier. Just like the reporter who first found word processing, the accountant who first used a spreadsheet, the first photographer who applied Photoshop, you will have an edge. In addition, AI will evolve faster and more broadly than these tools, and your edge will grow and become sustainable.

My second piece of advice is: Uphold your responsibility as an engineer. We all know that for centuries physicians took the Hippocratic Oath, as a responsibility to treat human life as sacred. In the age of AI, I think engineers’ responsibilities are equally sacred, or even greater.

Why? Because as top engineering graduates from a top school, during the Age of AI, you are the ones with the power. But please remember what the world’s greatest philosopher, Spider-Man, said: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

In the Age of AI, autonomous and semi-autonomous algorithms will invest money, take care of children, drive cars, and conduct surgery. You will be the ones who build these products, which will impact people’s possessions, health, and even lives.

As engineers, we cannot abandon our conscience and sense of responsibility. We need to be thorough, diligent, and ethical, not just in the architecture and coding, but also in the design, in the testing, in running the machine learning training, and in downloading the updated parameters.

The first airbags saved many lives, but they also accidentally killed some children, due to the lack of adequate design and instructions that adequately considered children’s smaller size. So your first responsibilities are to your users, to making your product safe, thoughtful, and usable. And more than “product safety.” You also have a responsibility to foresee and prevent the potential risks of technology to users from getting out of hand. So please speak up strongly against “autonomous weapons” or “bartering or sales of privacy data.”

Your second responsibility is to yourself. In the Age of AI, you are not just competing with other people, but also with AI. You have a responsibility to work on the hard problems, and avoid wasting your time doing what machines will be able to do. Don’t waste your talent repeating what you learned at school. Don’t accept a job that doesn’t challenge you. Take risks and learn vigorously and rigorously so that you can become the best in something specific and useful, whatever your field. Be creative and inventive. AI is great at optimizing, but AI cannot invent something new.

Your final responsibility is to make the world a better place with your choices as an engineer. Choose jobs that save lives, not destroy them. Choose jobs that empower people, not demoralize them. Work for organizations with more compassion than greed, and for people who care more about world peace than world domination.

And my last advice: Be in touch with your heart. After all that serious tech talk, what I am going to talk about next may seem a little bit out of place. But it comes from my heart.

Four years ago, I was diagnosed with 4th stage lymphoma. I faced the real possibility that my remaining time here was measured in months. During that time of ultimate uncertainty, I thought a lot about my life. I came to realize that my accomplishments, and even the arrival of AI after waiting 30 years meant nothing to me. I came to realize that by chasing these technologies, products, investments, and my career, my priorities were out-of-order. I neglected my family. My father had passed away. My mother barely remembered me. My kids had grown up. 

One of the books I read during my illness was Bonnie Ware’s book about the regrets of people on their deathbeds.  She found that no one wished they’d worked harder or spent more time at the office or accumulated more possessions. People’s top wish was that they had spent more time, sharing their love of their loved ones.

Fortunately, I am now in remission so I am here with you today. I am spending much more time with my family. I moved closer to my mother. I travel with my wife, whether on business or for pleasure. When my kids come home, I would take not two or three days off from work, but two or three weeks.

I also spent more time meaningfully connecting with more people. I spent weekends traveling with my best friends. I took my company on a one-week vacation to Silicon Valley — their Mecca. I met with young people who sent me questions on Facebook. I reached out to people I offended years ago and asked for their forgiveness and friendship. I wrote a book and shot a documentary to share what I had learned from my near-death experience. 

My near-death experience not only changed my life and my values, it gave me an enlightened view about what AI should mean for humanity. Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have given us their view, a view where machines supersede humans completely, and we are to control them or become them.

With my near-death experience, I would like to offer an alternate ending to their prediction of the AI future. Surely AI has, or will beat us on many analytical tasks with definitive decisions and outcomes. But these tasks are not what make us human. What makes us human is that we are able to love.

The moment when we see our newborn babies; the feeling of love at first sight; the warm feeling from friends who listen to us empathetically; the feeling of self-actualization when we help someone in need. Or if you want empirical proof, the fact that the placebo effect works. These all demonstrate that we are far from understanding the human “heart”, let alone replicating it. But we do know that humans uniquely are able to love and be loved. Humans want to love and be loved. That loving and being loved are what makes our lives worthwhile.

With this belief, we now know what we must do. At a minimum, recognize and be thankful that we are loved. If we can do better, return the love, and maybe a little bit more. Finally, the highest level of love: Pay it forward. Give love unconditionally.

Coming back to our AI theme, love differentiates us from AI. Despite what science fiction movies may portray, I can tell you responsibly that AI programs cannot love. They don’t even have feelings or self-consciousness. AlphaGo may beat the world champion, but it has no fun playing the game, feels no happiness from winning, has no desire to hug a loved one after it wins.

And in the future, even if an AI diagnostic tool is 10 times more accurate than doctors, patients will not want a cold pronouncement from the tool: “you have 4th stage lymphoma and a 70% likelihood of dying within 5 years.”  Patients will want a “doctor of love” who listens to our complaints, gives us encouragement, like “Kai-Fu had the same lymphoma, and he survived, so you can too”, and perhaps visits us at home, and is always available to talk to us. This kind of “doctor of love” will not only make us feel better, and have greater confidence, but a placebo effect will kick in and increase our likelihood of recuperation.

This will solve the AI employment problem we mentioned earlier. The number of “doctors of love” will outnumber today’s doctors. The displaced workers can take up careers spreading love and experiences—whether a passionate tour guide, an attentive concierge, a funny bartender, an infectious sushi chef. With the new “experts of love” titles many new kind of service jobs will be created. And they don’t have to be “jobs”, they can be volunteers, at an orphanage or a retirement home. This will give people jobs that AI cannot take away. They will do the job with pride and a strong sense of self-actualization. Most importantly, this will fill our planet with love and joy.

We’ve built many task-oriented AI that are much better than our brains. That was my dream 37 years ago. As a hardcore computer scientist, I’m proud that we’ve come so far. But now I realize that I went after the wrong organ. The most important part of the human body is not the brain, but the heart.

That’s a lesson that took me, I confess, too long to learn. My hope for all of you, as your careers blossom and your lives take shape, is that you will approach your lives with all the brains you certainly have, but also, above all, with all the heart you can muster.

It will be up to you to carry this forward, but I have confidence: if you let your heart be your guide, you’ll find your way through all of the massive changes that lie ahead, and make the next 10 years the best years of your lives.

Thank you, Class of 2017. 

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