In a phone interview from the Coursera headquarters in Mountain View, California, Ng spoke about the need for the Indian government to invest in education. He also shared his perspective on the potential of AI and the fears surrounding it. Edited excerpts:
We would like you to propose one big idea to mark India’s Independence Day.
I would say invest in education. In the last several years, we have seen the Indian economy grow by leaps and bounds and move up the value chain—at a country level, corporate level, and an individual level. The most trusted way to keep moving up that value chain is to keep investing in individuals—to help them grow in knowledge and skills. Education is hard. It takes individuals to do the hard work. It needs corporations to provide incentives and guidance to employees to keep learning. It takes a government to set up public-private partnerships and develop university programmes. I think this is the best path for India, given the rapid progress the country has already made and given the rapid progress we all hope India will continue to make.
How is online education being embraced by people in India?
Coursera has 34 million learners worldwide. India is our second-largest market in terms of learner numbers and revenue. We are seeing rapid enterprise adoption, with companies feeling the need to develop their workforce. We also see a lot of corporate leaders investing heavily in bringing online education to the workforce. I find it a very encouraging sign for a society if employers are bringing online education to their companies, helping employees gain more knowledge.
The Indian government has reportedly been picking your brains on how AI can be deployed in the country. How can AI change the face of India?
A few conversations are going on with a few parties but we don’t have anything to report as yet. Meanwhile, with every wave of technological disruption, there is an opportunity for a country to leap ahead. In the last wave that arrived with the internet, there were some great companies in web search and retailing; in social media, we had companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook. The arrival of AI, though, is still very much a question—which country will build the greatest AI company? I think the US and China have a lot going for them but it is still so early that there are opportunities globally to build AI products and AI companies. It is not easy for everyone to be the best in every single aspect of AI but I think Indian companies should try to be the best at applying AI to specific verticals. India has a very large textile industry, a large food processing industry and a large chemical industry. So India can do great work in AI for textile processing or food processing or the chemical industry. I think this approach will be better. I don’t think India should focus on AI for web search as the biggest companies are in other countries.
What are the challenges India faces when it comes to adopting AI?
India should try to do great work for India’s great companies. I think there is lots of room still to invest in AI education, to build new research institutions which will create new talent as well as help the existing talent do more. The government should be involved in public-private partnerships to help the acceleration of industries that make sense for India and generate the adoption of AI. In terms of AI, it is still so early that there are more opportunities than any company could possibly be working on right now. And also there are lots of localized products that can be built in India using new-age technologies, which would not have been possible two-three years ago.
Why is there still so much scare-mongering about AI and its purported threats, including AI-powered killer robots?
I have a hard time answering that one. Some people do a very simplistic analysis of what’s happening in the world. They pick a trend and set an expectation curve based on which they make naive extrapolations and draw conclusions that are not really credible. It is like when you have a child who is growing taller, and you set an exponential curve to assess when he is as tall as a building. But if you know anything about biology, you will realize that this is not credible. So I think exponential curves simplify the phenomenon and draw a random conclusion.
I worry about wealth and equality. I worry about bias and discrimination by AI. I worry about the potential of AI to undermine democracy and I think it’s much more important that government leaders, business leaders and individuals worry about the real problems rather than killer robots. It’s funny, sometimes when I speak with C-level audiences (executives)... when I walk into the room and say AI is not magic, it can’t do everything, they breathe a sigh of relief.
I am super optimistic about the near-term prospects of AI because every time there is a technological disruption, it gives us the opportunity of making the world a little different. I wish so many things were different, looking at the world today. I wish everyone had access to great education. I wish everyone could access healthcare. I wish everyone had access to great job opportunities. While AI isn’t the solution to everything, I think the disruptive wave of innovation in AI gives us the opportunity to make the world better for everyone.
Think of how valuable electricity and the internet have been for society. Many years from now, we won’t be able to imagine how to run the government without using AI. Many years from now, it would be unthinkable for any company to not use AI.
What would be a good approach by governments towards AI?
Every government has a huge role to play. Whenever there is disruption, leadership is important. And in this disrupting era of AI, government leaders have a huge role to play in education. The extent to which a government figures out how to use data and AI to improve governance, and the extent to which a government works on cohesive AI strategies, is going to be important.
I think a government’s AI strategy should not be to do everything—it (the strategy) should be to help and support locally and to use AI to specialize in what the country is already great at. The extent to which governments make the right decisions will have a huge impact on the lives of people as well as the economy of the country. We know that some governments use the internet better than others. I think, in the future as well, we can expect some countries and governments to use AI in a better way than others.