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AI pioneer Andrew Ng says his new online course will help build ‘an AI-powered society’

AI pioneer Andrew Ng says his new online course will help build ‘an AI-powered society’


We need people with AI skills to save us from the problems caused by AI

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TIME Summit On Higher Education
Andrew Ng is launching a new online course for deep learning.
Photo by Jemal Countess / Getty Images

Lots of people will tell you they’re nervous about the changes artificial intelligence will bring to the world, but Andrew Ng is confident it’s all for the best. The former AI chief of Baidu and founder of Google Brain is on a mission to build what he calls an “AI-powered society” — one where smart computers are as integral to businesses as electricity. And to bring about that future, Ng, now an adjunct professor at Stanford, will share what he knows best by teaching.

Today, Ng is launching a new course on deep learning on Coursera, the online education site he co-founded. The syllabus will follow his popular machine learning course, which has attracted some 2 million enrollments since its launch in 2011.

Ng says we need AI talent for non-tech companies, too

“There’s a lot of PR and buzz focused on AI transforming large tech companies, but there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done for AI to transform the non-tech companies,” Ng tells The Verge. “And I think the only way to build this AI-powered universe is if there are millions of people around the world who have the AI skill-set.”

There’s no doubt that demand outstrips supply in the world of artificial intelligence. Tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft compete for talent, offering extravagant salaries and computing resources academia can’t match. Sometimes, companies raid whole university departments — like when Uber hired 40 of the 140 researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s robotics center, leaving the lab “in crisis.” All this means that firms without the glossy veneer of Silicon Valley’s biggest have even less of a chance of getting the talent they need.

Not everyone will be able to leap into the course, says Ng, they’ll need “some basic machine learning or coding knowledge.” He also recognizes that there are plenty of introductions to deep learning already online, but says these are spread about on blogs and YouTube channels, making it difficult for individuals to get the whole picture.

“I wanted to create a very clear path for anyone,” says Ng. “After someone finishes this course, they’ll be able to put deep learning on their resume with confidence and apply modern AI to a large variety of problems.” The course has video elements and programming exercises, and it will teach users basic concepts before moving on to how to implement them. “In the first few weeks you code up deep learning algorithms yourself, pretty much from scratch,” says Ng.

The courses will be available at — a domain Ng registered after his departure from Baidu, and that was the cause of not a little speculation in the AI community. Enrolling will cost $49 a month.

“Job displacement is a huge problem.”

The result, he hopes, will be more AI everywhere. But is Ng worried about future implications? Though estimates of exactly how many jobs will be lost to automation vary, economists and researchers agree that AI and robotics are going to cause dramatic upheaval in the workforce. It’s not just lost jobs either, but lost tax income for countries as workers become unemployed. This, in turn, could lead to cuts to public welfare at a time when citizens need the support of the state the most. It’s no surprise that some people are less than hopeful about the AI-powered future.

“Job displacement is a huge problem that we’ll need to address,” says Ng. “But I wouldn’t be working on this if I didn’t genuinely think it’ll make a lot of peoples’ lives much better off.” He says he favors a “conditional basic income” — one where the state offers support to the unemployed, but only if they’ll retrain where needed. “There are lots jobs for which society cannot find enough employees. Everything from healthcare workers to teachers to wind turbine technicians and deep learning researchers.”

Ng says if he’s learned one thing from decades of work in the tech industry, it’s that change is constant and unavoidable. The best one can do is be ready to take advantage of what’s already coming. “We’ll make the world a better place, but we’re going to create some big problems on the way,” he says. “And we should also work to clean up those problems.”