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Andrew Ng, Co-Founder & Co-Chairman of Coursera

By Peter High, published on Forbes
06/05/17

Andrew Ng is one of the foremost thinkers on the topic of artificial intelligence. He founded and led the “Google Brain” project which developed massive-scale deep learning algorithms. In 2011, he led the development of Stanford University’s main Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform. His course on Machine Learning would eventually reach an “enrollment” of over 100,000 students. That experience led Ng to co-found Coursera, a MOOC that partners with some of the top universities in the world to offer high quality online courses. Today, Coursera is the largest MOOC platform in the world.

Most recently, Ng led Baidu’s Artificial Intelligence Group. Under his watch, Baidu became one of the few companies with world-class expertise in every major artificial intelligence category: speech, neuro-linguistic programming, computer vision, machine learning, and knowledge graph, and his team introduced two new business units to the company: autonomous driving and the DuerOS Conversational Computing platform.

In late March, Ng announced that he would step away from Baidu, and in a Medium post, he noted, “Baidu’s AI is incredibly strong, and the team is stacked up and down with talent; I am confident AI at Baidu will continue to flourish. After Baidu, I am excited to continue working toward the AI transformation of our society and the use of AI to make life better for everyone.” I was curious how his plans have taken shape in the couple of months since the announcement, so I caught up with him at his office at the Gates Computer Science Building at Stanford University. Given how influential his career has been to date, I was curious where he would focus his attention from this point forward. We also covered his recommendations for companies that are nearer to the beginning of the journey of implementing artificial intelligence, the emergence of roles like the chief artificial intelligence officer, and the industries that are most likely to be impacted by AI, as well as his comparison between the business cultures in the United States and China, among a variety of other topics

Peter High: Andrew, since we last spoke, you have departed Baidu. Where do you see your career evolving from this point forward?

Andrew Ng: Over the last few years, AI [artificial intelligence] technologies have taken off. There are so many things that we can do now that were not possible three or four years ago. This creates tremendous opportunities for large tech companies like Baidu, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and many others. It also creates opportunities for smaller teams to do meaningful work, whether they are for-profit, nonprofit, or startup organizations. In the same way that electricity and the internet changed everything, over the next few decades, AI will change everything. I am looking into quite a few ideas in parallel, and exploring new AI businesses that I can build. One thing that excites me is finding ways to support the global AI community so that people everywhere can access the knowledge and tools that they need to make AI transformations.

High: Artificial intelligence is a broad topic. What are some of the areas that are most exciting to you and represent the biggest areas of opportunity in the near term?

Ng: People often ask me, “Andrew, what industries do you think AI will transform?” I usually answer that it might be easier to think about what industries AI will not transform. To be honest, I struggle to think of one. For example, I was speaking at a conference and I said that my hairdresser’s job is probably safe from AI because I do not know how to build a robot to cut hair. A friend of mine, who is a robotics professor, was in the audience, she stood up, pointed her finger at my head and said, “Andrew for most people’s haircuts I would agree, we cannot build a robot, but for your haircut, I could make a robot do that.”

It is difficult to think of a major industry that AI will not transform. This includes healthcare, education, transportation, retail, communications, and agriculture. There are surprisingly clear paths for AI to make a big difference in all of these industries. I have heard you say, Peter, that sometimes AI feels like a far off thing, but it is just over the horizon. I agree, and a lot of the work that will get us there is happening now. Certainly, the smartest CEOs and CIOs, and maybe some new chief artificial intelligence officers, are accumulating the talent and tools necessary, and maybe already using them, to transform their businesses.

High: What suggestions do you have for CEOs, CIOs, and CAIOs that are fairly early in their journey of exploring the implications of AI for their business?

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