Google CEO: A.I. is more important than fire or electricity

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says artificial intelligence is going to have a bigger impact on the world than some of the most ubiquitous innovations in history.

"AI is one of the most important things humanity is working on. It is more profound than, I dunno, electricity or fire," says Pichai, speaking at a town hall event in San Francisco in January.

A number of very notable tech leaders have made bold statements about the potential of artificial intelligence. Tesla boss Elon Musks says AI is more dangerous than North Korea. Famous physicist Stephen Hawking says AI could be the "worst event in the history of our civilization." And Y Combinator President Sam Altman likens AI to nuclear fission.

Even in such company, Pichai's comment seems remarkable. Interviewer and Recode executive editor Kara Swisher stopped Pichai when he made the comment. "Fire? Fire is pretty good," she retorts.

Pichai sticks by his assertion. "Well, it kills people, too," Pichai says of fire. "We have learned to harness fire for the benefits of humanity but we had to overcome its downsides too. So my point is, AI is really important, but we have to be concerned about it."

Indeed, for many, so much about artificial intelligence is unknown and therefore scary. However, Pichai also points out that "it is important to help people understand that they use AI today. AI is just making computers more intelligent and being able to do a wide variety of tasks and we take it for granted whenever something happens and we adopt it," he says.

"So for example, today, Google can translate across many many languages and people use it billions of times a day. That's because of AI.

"Or if you ... go to Google and search for images of sunset, or if you go to Google photos and search for images of people hugging, we can actually pull together and show pictures of people hugging.

"This is all because of AI. ...[T]here are early stages of AI here and we use it today."

And as a tech executive would, Pichai says AI has the potential to make our lives even better in the future.

"AI holds the potential for some of the biggest advances we are going to see. You know whenever I see the news of a young person dying of cancer, you realize AI is going to play a role in solving that in the future, so I think we owe it to make progress," the Google CEO says.

That being said, it is still important to think about humanity's future with artificial intelligence, Pichai says. "It is right to be concerned, absolutely, you have to worry about it otherwise you are not going to solve it."

In particular, one concern is robots replacing low-skilled labor.

For its part, Google has committed to donating $1 billion to job-retraining over the next five years to help a transitioning workforce. But according to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, it can't be the sole responsibility of the private sector — companies and the government are going to need to work together, she says.

Caution and strategic retraining are necessary because there is no way to stem the tsunami of technological innovation once, nor should there be, both Wojcicki and Pichai point out.

"We have to recognize where we do live, in this time where there is really dramatic change from a technology standpoint and the innovations that we have, but that doesn't mean those innovations are going to stop," says Wojcicki. "Technology is going to continue, it is going to continue to move forward. You need to move forward with that technology responsibly."

For current and future generations of workers, continual learning will have to become the norm.

"We know that 20 to 30 years ago, you educated yourself and that carried you through for the rest of your life. That is not going to be true for the generation which is being born now. They have to learn continuously over their lives. We know that. So we have to transform how we do education," says Pichai.

AI is forcing change upon companies, workers and society's infrastructure. "It is important to understand that tomorrow, whether Google is there or not, artificial intelligence is going to progress. Technology has this nature. It is going to evolve," says Pichai.

See also:

Top Silicon Valley exec on why Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are both right about A.I.

Google CEO: You don't need to code to be successful at many jobs of the future — but you will need this

Mark Cuban: The world's first trillionaire will be an artificial intelligence entrepreneur

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