Home / Industry / Infotech /  Your only choice is to build better artificial intelligence tech than others: Brad Templeton

It is not easy to slot Brad Templeton. What do you make of a person who is not only the networks and computing chair at Singularity University in Silicon Valley but also a software architect, a director of the Foresight Nanotech Institute, board member of the cyberspace watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation, the first person to have set up an Internet-based business, a futurist lecturer, hobby photographer, artist, as well as a consultant on Google’s driverless car design team?

In a phone interview from the US, Templeton, who will be in India this month as a key speaker during the SingularityU India Summit (to be held in association with INK, which hosts events like INKtalks—a platform for the exchange of cutting-edge ideas and inspiring stories), shared his views on driverless cars, the perceived threat from intelligent machines and censorship of the Internet. Edited excerpts:

Driverless cars are not hacker-proof and may find it difficult to navigate chaotic traffic. How are we addressing such issues?

It’s absolutely true that people are concerned about security of these cars, but it is wrong to presume that people in the media learnt about this before those who built the driverless car. The people who built the car are working to make the car secure. They won’t be able to do it perfectly, but they are going to get there. The Google team certainly has the most miles to its credit. Right now over 2 million km in automatic mode, driving around mostly in California. The chaotic driving in India is slower than some of the roads in Europe or North America. And it is actually easier to do slower and chaotic driving than faster. You get more time to stop, perceive the situation and make accurate moves. The real challenge is that in many chaotic driving situations, there are unwritten rules so you have to figure out how to sort of, play a game with the other cars. It may mean that some of the more chaotic places may have to clean up their act a bit if they want to have a technology like this.

What’s your role and vision as a director of the Foresight Nanotech Institute?

The institute has been publishing material on what nanotechnology might do to the world and other technologies like AI (artificial intelligence) would mean to the world, and how to do it in a safe way—some guidelines on how researchers can use this technology to make it safer.

But many technology luminaries like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and even physicist Stephen Hawking have expressed their fears that robots with AI could rule mankind. Do you share their concerns?

I surely understand their fears. Like many technologies, there are certain risks if it is done wrong, but it is a risk that we cannot avoid. So we don’t really have a lot of choice, but to do it well and make the effort to do it well. If you don’t do it in, say, America or India, it will mean that the AI features will be Chinese or from Pakistan or from somewhere else. And that’s not the outcome you’re looking for. You have to accept that AI technology is just too valuable, just too useful not to build it. So people around the world will build it. Your only choice is to build it better than them.

I’m quite comfortable with the idea that we will at some point be able to make machines or AI stuff. They might not be machines as we think of them today...that surpass us in intelligence. Many parents have children who ultimately surpass them in intelligence. This has been happening for a very long time, but at a very slow pace. The best that I want to hope for is to create these children of the mind as I call them, but not in the biological sense, that still love us the way children love their parents. History has shown that the emotion of love is strong and I have a name for it. I call it Lennonism, because of the famous line from (John) Lennon: “All you need is love".

You are also an adviser to an Estonian company called Starship Technologies. Tell us more about this company.

We make small delivery robots which are going to change the face of retailing and last-mile delivery and logistics. Starship comes out of Europe, created by two of the founders of Skype, Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, who is CEO. The mission is similar to the vision I laid out in 2007 for the Deliverbot, the self-driving box that can get you anything in 30 minutes for under a dollar. Customers will be able to place online orders and have a robot come to their home immediately or as per their schedule. It is cheaper, uses less energy and causes less traffic. There is a lot of local delivery that goes on in the world and robots are going to do some of them.

Having been involved in the development of software like VisiCalc, the world’s first computer spreadsheet, do you believe it’s a software-driven—as opposed to a hardware-driven—world?

Absolutely. Hardware still needs to be there, and still has a place, but I think it’s all about software. I tell companies that if they do not start thinking about themselves as being a software company in the 21st century, they will not be a company for too long. You have to learn to build a software layer on top of your business, your city and other things if you want to become flexible enough to survive in this century.

Would this imply that you are bullish on the Internet of Things (IoT) and industrial IoT concepts?

I wouldn’t say I’m bullish. Actually, there’s a great deal of hype, with people pitching products and applications that are actually useless. And we’re still looking out for the killer app—the one thing that will change your life the way the phone did, or the way Facebook or the Internet itself did. IoT in the industrial space is easy to figure out. But I haven’t seen anything that will change my, or anyone’s, life in the consumer IoT space. Currently, it’s a marketing term.

How has the Internet changed—with newer technologies on the one hand changing and disrupting business models, and geopolitics impacting cyberspace on the other with Internet censorship?

We’ve been fighting a lot of those battles (against Internet censorship). We win some. We lose some. But we hope we make things better. You are absolutely right that governments around the world are scared of their population being able to communicate freely and without any government control. Sometimes they do have legitimate reasons to be afraid because of criminals and terrorists. But unfortunately, that makes them crack down on honest people too. We are sad for every battle that we lose in that direction. I must admit, I thought we’d be a little further along on the path of freedom than we are today, but I guess it is not unusual to underestimate just how much the people who want to stop (users from accessing the Internet) will try.

Your views on Net neutrality...

It’s actually a pretty complex subject. I’m totally in favour of an open network without any interference. The Internet is very simple inside; hence I call it a stupid network. All the smarts are in your phones, laptops, Web servers and so on. The people who try to fight that will make the Internet less than what it should be—and the result will be less innovation and fewer benefits to society. And that’s bad.

Leslie D'Monte
Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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