AI holds mirror to humanity: Salesforce’s Richard Socher
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AI holds mirror to humanity: Salesforce’s Richard Socher


Artificial intelligence is nothing to be feared, according to Salesforce chief scientist Richard Socher, who says the controversial technology is teaching us what it means to be human.

Speaking to The Australian on his first trip down under, Mr ­Socher, who founded AI start-up MetaMind before it was acquired by Salesforce in 2016, said his goal was to make deep-learning technology more accessible to everyone.

“I think artificial intelligence is in this really exciting space to the point where it’s almost philosophical,” Mr Socher said.

“It’s telling us what makes us human, which is largely our in­telligence. Understanding different manifestations of intelli­gence — motor, visual intelligence, language intelligence.

“For me this is a fundamental and exciting research area to try to replicate these intelligent behaviours that we have.”

According to Mr Socher, who was recently recognised as one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders of 2017, AI is already immensely useful, but not by itself.

According to Mr Socher, the intelligence aspect comes into play only when its combined with another facet.

“These are multi-billion-dollar applications but only when it’s AI plus X,” he said. “It’s not AI in isolation, this is AI plus search, plus e-commerce, or plus sales service marketing in our case.”

He added that Salesforce was focused on delivering intelligent features, geared for the consumer world, into an enterprise environment.

“Being able to move all the way from basic research into direct useful applications is really rewarding,” he said.

Mr Socher said in the past, humans moved from being hunters and gatherers to farmers, and “no one is bummed people aren’t working in the fields any more”.

He expects new jobs to be ­created in interacting with AI, and says creative industries will thrive given AI is inherently good at repeating things but not coming up with new ideas.

The executive revealed what he’s most excited about right now is a project his team is working on — an advanced conversational agent that can answer any question and understand your mood.

“It will have access to structured knowledge and databases, it can reason, in complex, logical, transitive ways across multiple different facts,” he said.

“It can understand the digital world and put all of that together in one single algorithm that gets smarter and smarter over time.

“It will be one continuous learning system. That’s the single most exciting thing our team is working on.”

Having spent most of his working life immersed in the AI field, Mr Socher isn’t a believer of the dystopian light in which the trend is often characterised.

“The one quote I love is it’s easiest to predict the future you’re working on yourself,” he said.

“You don’t need to overhype AI, it’s exciting as it is.

“You don’t need some sort of self-aware Terminator type thing, you just need to focus on the really useful use cases.”

As for working at billion-dollar behemoth Salesforce versus being a humble start-up founder, Mr ­Socher said he was having more fun now than he ever had at MetaMind. “As a CTO and founder of a start-up you have to wear a lot of different hats,” he said.

“You’re in charge of marketing, sales, ­finance, and human ­resources.

“We have an employee success team at Salesforce to deal with all of that, so in this larger company what I can do is focus more on certain things, and that’s the difference for me personally.

“The bigger company has more resources and that helps with AI, which needs those computational resources and datasets.

“Sometimes AI does computational resources, datasets that are interesting.

“It’s really hard for a start-up to continuously do high-level cutting-edge research, especially when there’s a constant need for immediate revenue.”

And for companies looking to deploy AI solutions internally, Mr Socher said it was important for all of them to think hard about their data assets, and how to unify them in a way that made using the technology worthwhile.

“That will be important for a lot of companies, and CRM is a good place to have that data,” Mr ­Socher said.

“You can then make use of some AI features very easily.”

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