April 16, 2018:
The Power of the Algorithms
In an interview, best-selling author and machine-learning expert Pedro Domingos discusses the global competition to take the lead in artificial intelligence, the advance of autocrats and the threats modern technology presents to Western democracies.
It's a quiet hallway in the computer science department at the University of Washington in Seattle. To the right, young software engineers sit in front of their laptops in the windowless, artificially lit rooms. To the left, computer science professor Pedro Domingos opens the door to his office, which has a view of the massive trees on campus.
Domingos' book "The Master Algorithm," about the technology of artificial intelligence (AI), made him famous and is also considered a standard reference work. The best-selling book, published in 2015, describes how machines that can learn are changing our everyday lives -- from the social networks and science to business and politics and right up to the way modern wars are waged. The book drew praise from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Recently, a third prominent figure noted that he'd read the book: Chinese President Xi Jinping. When state television broadcast his new year's speech this year, viewers discovered that next to Marx's "Capital" and "Selected Works" by Mao Zedong, he also has a copy of "The Master Algorithm" on his bookshelf.
"The book is much read in China," says Domingos. "That's probably why Xi and his people became aware of it. It's possible that it has now become even more popular." The book has also been published in Russian, Japanese, Korean and in many other languages, but not yet in German.
DER SPIEGEL recently sat down with Domingos in his Seattle office for an interview.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Domingos, Russian President Vladimir Putin says that he who leads in artificial intelligence will rule the world. Is that true?
Domingos: I agree with him, realistically. Artificial intelligence is a very powerful technology, and there is an arms race going on. Fast forward 20 years into the future and one of the players could have won the race. China is more likely to win than Russia is, although Russia has a lot going on. So, we could end up in a world that China may not formally control, but they effectively do because they rule the cyberworld.
DER SPIEGEL: Why is this tantamount to world domination?
Domingos: AI lowers the cost of knowledge by orders of magnitude. One good, effective machine learning system can do the work of a million people, whether it's for commercial purposes or for cyberespionage. Imagine a country that produces a thousand times more knowledge than another. This is the challenge we are facing.
DER SPIEGEL: Chinese President Xi Jinping is very interested in artificial intelligence. Did you know before his new year's speech that your book was on his shelf?
Domingos: I didn't know before, but I found out pretty quickly. This is something that Xi Jinping regularly does. These books are on his shelf to send a message, and the message that I think he is sending by having my book is, "We really believe in artificial intelligence." So, when I found out about it I was not extremely surprised given that the Chinese government had announced before that it wants to dominate in AI.
DER SPIEGEL: Which sentiment prevailed when you saw your book there -- a sense of recognition or one of concern?
Domingos: It was both exciting and scary. Exciting because China is developing rapidly, and there are all sorts of ways the Chinese and the rest of the world can benefit from AI. Scary because this is an authoritarian government, going full tilt on using AI to control their population. In fact, what we are seeing now is just the beginning. Like any technology, AI gives you the power to do good and evil. So far, we have been focusing on the power to do good, and I think it is enormous. But the power to do evil is there, too.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it by coincidence that two autocrats like Xi and Putin take such an interest in AI?
Domingos: When I travel around America, Europe and Asia, it is interesting to see how differently people feel about this technology. The picture coming out of Silicon Valley is a very optimistic one, informed by libertarian ideas. The very opposite is true for Europe: I just came back from a conference in Berlin where I was struck by the sheer pessimism. Every other session was about: "Oh, we have to fear this. Who knows what may be going on here?" Until someone made a point that was really on the mark -- as the conference was called "Humanity disrupted." He asked: "Why don't we call the conference 'Humanity Enhanced'?" Sure, AI brings disruption -- but we are being much more enhanced than disrupted.
DER SPIEGEL: And China and Russia?
Domingos: They unfortunately see the authoritarian and less the libertarian potential. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin ask themselves: "What could we do with this technology?"
DER SPIEGEL: Are we Europeans losing out to the autocrats?
Domingos: There are many AI applications being used in the U.S. and China, be it on the local or the national level, in medical research or traffic management. Less so in Europe. So, yes, Europe is missing out to an extent, unfortunately.
DER SPIEGEL: Your book has been translated into Russian and Chinese, but not into German or French.
Domingos: My literary agent told me: "You are going to sell this book all over the world, but not in France and Germany." And that's what happened. "The Master Algorithm" was sold to Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea. There are Polish and Russian translations. But my agent was right when he said: "The Germans and the French don't like these things."
DER SPIEGEL: Your book warns of the limitations, even dangers of this technology if it ends up in the wrong hands. Aren't we worried for good reasons?
Domingos: There are dangers, and in terms of regulating AI, Europe is ahead of the U.S. Unfortunately, there is too much regulation without understanding the technology that is being regulated.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Domingos: The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is putting too much value on the factor of explainability -- meaning why an algorithm decides this way rather than that way. Let's take the example of cancer research, where machine learning already plays an important role. Would I rather be diagnosed by a system that is 90 percent accurate but doesn't explain anything, or a system that is 80 percent accurate and explains things? I'd rather go for the 90 percent accurate system.
DER SPIEGEL: Why can't we have both -- accuracy and explainability?
Domingos: The best learning algorithms are these neural network-based ones inspired by what we find in humans and animals. These algorithms are very accurate as they can understand the world based on a lot of data at a much more complex level than we can. But they are completely opaque. Even we, the experts, don't understand exactly how they work. We only know that they do. So, we should not allow only algorithms which are fully explainable. It is hard to capture the whole complexity of reality and keep things at the same time accurate and simple....MUCH MORE