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AI to be the 'new electricity,' says Baidu chief scientist

Andrew Ng, vice president and chief scientist at Baidu, speaks at Nikkei Innovation Forum in East Palo Alto, California, on Oct. 26.

EAST PALO ALTO, U.S. -- The hype surrounding artificial intelligence has made AI a buzzword among policymakers and companies. But Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Chinese internet giant Baidu, says AI not only justifies the hype but predicts it will have the same kind of impact on society that the widespread introduction of electricity did.

Ng was speaking at the Nikkei Innovation Forum: The Future of AI, Robots and Us, held in Silicon Valley on Wednesday local time and hosted by Nikkei Inc.

"I make this analogy that AI is the new electricity. A lot of years ago, as we started to electrify the U.S., that transformed industry after industry," Ng said. "Everything from factories [to] agriculture, transportation and communications was transformed by electricity. I think that we now see a clear path for AI to transform multiple industries as well."

Ng said a game he likes to play with his friends is to challenge each other to come up with industries that will not be transformed by AI in the next five years. He said he has "a hard time thinking of one" himself.

Baidu opened its Silicon Valley lab for artificial intelligence in 2013. The Chinese internet giant tapped Ng, who led an AI project at Google, as chief scientist in 2014. Under his tutelage, Baidu is now said to be on par with rivals like Google and Apple in developing AI applications.

One of the industries Ng said he is bullish on for AI application is health care. "I think society has done a good job in creating digital medical records," Ng said. "Now the data is there, and I think the AI will come in. My team has been running AI on healthcare for some time."

Ng also cited transportation as one of the industries that will likely make heavy use of AI in the near future, and he said Baidu is working with train station operators and logistics companies "to optimize their operations significantly."

Skeptic on singularity

Some economists and technologists worry that AI, and robots using AI, will take jobs from humans.

"I think the jobs issue is a very serious one," Ng said, adding that there are many jobs "in the cross hairs" of AI. "I do think we are facing, and we will face, increased labor displacements." As a solution, Ng put forward basic income, a form of social security in which the government provides every citizen with regular, unconditional cash payments. For Ng, the goal of basic income is not for people to "not do anything" but rather for them to study. But for the study part, Ng pointed out that there will need to be a new educational system after AIs take over some of the jobs humans do now.

"I think today we have a hard time imagining the jobs of the future," he said. "Drone traffic optimizer, custom DNA sequencing designer ... I think those jobs will be there, but we may need a new educational system to tap into those jobs."

Optimist that he is on AI, however, Ng remains skeptical about the so-called singularity, the point at which artificial intelligence becomes smarter than humans. That puts him at odds with the likes of Masayoshi Son, CEO of the Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank, who is an advocate of the concept.

"I think the singularity is really science fiction," Ng said. "It's very difficult to explain why I think AI will transform industry after industry, but why I don't see a way to develop the technology for singularity. It will take a breakthrough in AI technology or something for anything like that to be possible."

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