Democratizing AI: Max Pechyonkin

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is now an inescapable and often unnoticed part of daily life, and everyone can and should take part in developing its applications.

Max Pechyonkin, a deep learning engineer and dean of the China School of AI, an AI-focused education program, spoke at the Emerge by TechNode conference in Shanghai in May about his work in teaching people the fundamentals of an omnipresent technology that is vastly misunderstood.

“If you use a smartphone, you are using AI everyday,” he said, including any app with a content recommendation feature.

The technology has become so ubiquitous that its very definition has changed, he said. Twenty years ago, navigation apps like Google maps were considered AI, today, they are just “path-finding algorithms,” he explained. Perhaps in another 20 years what is considered cutting-edge AI at the moment, like computer vision, will be so commonplace that it is not labelled as such any longer, he added.

But as AI becomes part of our everyday lives, people focus too much on the technology itself, resulting in an “overhyped” concept, Pechyonkin said. People forget to talk about particular applications of AI, and focus on debating far-fetched scenarios instead of tangible possibilities, he explained.

People can’t really ground their ideas about AI because they are not very familiar with it, “when you don’t know about the technology in detail, you have no idea what it can and cannot do,” he said.

In fact, learning the basics of this technology is easier than ever before, it doesn’t require a doctorate, and there are plenty of online resources that can help anyone get a working understanding, Pechyonkin said. This is the biggest myth about AI these days, he has found. There is no need, for instance, to complete an online course just to have informed conversations about the ethics of applications.