Strong AI has been on my mind a lot lately. We use weak AI all the time and the difference between then two has become more apparent as the limitations, in a particular context, of an application of weak AI (such as Siri) becomes painfully apparent in daily use.
When I was a student at MIT in the 1980s, computer science and artificial intelligence were front and center. Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert were the gods of MIT LCS and just looking at what happened in 1983, 1984, and 1985 at what is now CSAIL (what used to be LCS/AI) will blow your mind. The MIT Media Lab was created at the same time – opening in 1985 – and there was a revolution at MIT around AI and computer science. I did a UROP in Seymour Papert’s lab my freshman year (creating Logo on the Coleco Adam) and took 6.001 before deciding to do Course 15 and write commercial software part-time while I was in school. So while I didn’t study at LCS or the Media Lab, I was deeply influenced by what was going on around me.
Since then, I’ve always been fascinated with the notion of strong AI and the concept of the singularity. I put myself in the curious observer category rather than the active creator category, although a number of the companies I’ve invested in touch on aspects of strong AI while incorporating much weak AI (which many VCs are currently calling machine learning) into what they do. And, several of the CEOs I work with, such as John Underkoffler of Oblong, have long histories working with this stuff going back to the mid-1980s through late 1990s at MIT.
When I ask people what the iconic Hollywood technology film about the future of computing is, the most common answer I get is Minority Report. This is no surprise to me as it’s the one I name. If you are familiar with Oblong, you probably can make the link quickly to the idea that John Underkoffler was the science and tech advisor to Spielberg on Minority Report. Ok – got it – MIT roots in Minority Report – that makes sense. And it’s pretty amazing for something done in 2002, which was adapted from something Philip K. Dick wrote in 1956.
Now, fast forward to 2014. I watched three movies in the last year purportedly about strong AI. The most recent was Her, which Amy, Jenny Lawton, and I watched over the weekend, although we had to do it in two nights because we were painfully bored after about 45 minutes. The other two were Transcendence and Lucy.
All three massively disappointment me. Her was rated the highest and my friends seemed to like it more, but I found the portrayal of the future, in which strong AI is called OS 1, to be pedantic. Samantha (Her) had an awesome voice (Scarlett Johansson) but the movie was basically a male-fantasy of a female strong AI. Lucy was much worse – once again Scarlett Johansson shows up, this time as another male fantasy as she goes from human to super-human to strong AI embodied in a sexy body to black goo that takes over, well, everything. And in Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays the sexy strong character that saves the femme fatale love interest after dying and uploading his consciousness, which then evolves into a nefarious all-knowing thing that the humans have to stop – with a virus.
It’s all just a total miss in contrast to Minority Report. As I was muttering with frustration to Amy about Her, I wondered what the three movies were based on. In trolling around, they appear to be screenplays rather than adaptations of science fiction stories. When I think back to Philip K. Dick in 1956 to John Underkoffler in 2000 to Stephen Spielberg in 2002 making a movie about 2054, that lineage makes sense to me. When I think about my favorite near term science fiction writers, including William Hertling and Daniel Suarez, I think about how much better these movies would be if they were adaptations of their books.
The action adventure space opera science fiction theme seems like it’s going to dominate in the next year of Hollywood sci-fi movies, if Interstellar, The Martian (which I’m very looking forward to) and Blackhat are any indication of what is coming. That’s ok because they can be fun, but I really wish someone in Hollywood would work with a great near-term science fiction writer and a great MIT (or Stanford) AI researcher to make the “Minority Report” equivalent for strong AI and the singularity.
I don’t invest in movies. Unless a long time friend, like Rajat Bhargava, asks me to join him for fun in an investment. Several years ago Raj asked me to invest with him in a movie a cousin of his – Prashant Bhargava – was making called Patang. I wrote a modest check without thinking twice. The result of Prashant and the work of his team is a beautiful movie. And it will be in Boulder for a few days – 2/27 – 3/2 – at the The Dairy Center for the Arts.
Following is the story of the movie from the director, Prashant Bhargava.
The seeds for the movie Patang were based on the memories of my uncles dueling kites. In India kite flying transcends boundaries. Rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim, young or old – together they look towards the sky with wonder, thoughts and doubts forgotten. Kite flying is meditation in its simplest form.
In 2005, I visited Ahmedabad to experience their annual kite festival, the largest in India. When I first witnessed the entire city on their rooftops, staring up at the sky, their kites dueling ferociously, dancing without inhibition, I knew I had to make this film in Ahmedabad.
Inspired by the spiritual energy of the festival, I returned the next three years, slowly immersing myself in the ways of the old city. I became acquainted with its unwritten codes of conduct, its rhythms and secrets. I would sit on a street corner for hours at a stretch and just observe. Over time, I connected with shopkeepers and street kids, gangsters and grandmothers. This process formed the foundation for my characters, story and my approach to shooting the film.
I found myself discovering stories within Ahmedabad’s old city that intrigued me. Fractured relationships, property disputes, the meaning of home and the spirit of celebration were recurring themes that surfaced.
Patang’s joyful message and its cinematic magic developed organically. My desire was for the sense of poetry and aesthetics to be less of an imposed perspective and more of a view that emerged from the pride of the people and place.
Seven years in the making, Patang has been a journey which has inspired and brought together many.The key theme of resilience of family is reflected by the bonds between all of us who gave our hearts to make the film.
Last night Amy and I watched the movie Something Ventured: Risk, Reward, and the Original Venture Capitalists. This was my reward (I got to choose) since she watched both football games yesterday (and today). We have a 15 minute and 30 minute rule on any movie – after 15 minutes the chooser asks “still into this movie?” If the answer is no, we stop. This question gets asked by the chooser again after 30 minutes. If the answer is yes, we go for the duration, even if someone falls asleep. For example, after 15 minutes the other day, Amy said “still in” on my choice of The Hebrew Hammer. After 30 minutes, we were both “no’s” and that was the end of that.
I figured Amy would veto Something Ventured after 15 minutes. I’d heard from a number of VC friends that it was really good, but the idea of watching a documentary on the history of the creation of the venture capital industry doesn’t sound like an awesome Saturday night movie choice. But after about ten minutes, Amy said, “Wow – this is great!”
As I’m deep into writing book three of the Startup Revolution series (titled Startup Boards: Reinventing the Board of Directors to Better Support the Entrepreneur) I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a great board of directors, and what characteristics of different VCs contribute to this. It ended up being super helpful to see direct interviews with a number of legendary VCs, including Arthur Rock, Tom Perkins, Don Valentine, Dick Kramlich, Reid Dennis, Bill Draper, Pitch Johnson, Bill Bowes, Bill Edwards, and Jim Gaither. They covered a wide range of experiences, but were all there at the beginning of the VC industry and shaped many of the fundamental structures of venture capitalists, VC firms, how they interact with entrepreneurs, how the companies (and investments) are structured, and how boards work.
The entrepreneurs who were in the documentary were equally awesome. They included Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel), Jimmy Treybig (founder of Tandem), Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari), Dr. Herbert Boyer (co-founder of Genentech), Mike Markkula (president/CEO/chairman of Apple for many years), Sandy Lerner (co-founder of Cisco), John Morgridge (early CEO of Cisco), and Robert Campbell (founder of Forethought). The interplay between VC and entrepreneur as the story of the founding and funding of their companies was told was very powerful.
After 30 minutes, when asked if she was still in, Amy emphatically said “yeah – definitely.” While I thought I knew all of the history, I learned a few things I’d never heard before, but more importantly I got the nuance of the stories directly from the participants. And all of it was rolling around in the back of my head this afternoon as I spent three solid hours on Startup Boards.
If you are a VC, or aspire to be a VC, do yourself a favor and watch Something Ventured right now. And, if you are an entrepreneur who is interested in how the VC industry got started, I think you’ll also find this fascinating. The film ended with all of the VCs echoing the powerful reminder that without the entrepreneurs, there would be no VCs. It made me happy that it ended on that note.
I don’t care what your political orientation is, if you want an awesome two hour lesson in leadership watch the movie Thirteen Days. It’s the story of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis based on the book by May and Zelikow titled The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Amy and I watched it last night. I was exhausted from two weeks on the east coast and was having trouble speaking (Amy refers to it as “getting the dregs of Brad.”) I think I was even out of dregs so I just laid on the coach and watched the movie. I half watched it a few months ago while catching up on email and I saw it when it first came out so I knew the story. But when I watched it a few months ago I didn’t give it my undivided attention. This time I did because I didn’t have the energy to do anything else.
On Thursday and Friday I was in DC and had four significant experiences. The first was a tour of the CIA which, while limited to very specific physical areas (including the CIA gift shop), included a 75 minute roundtable with the CIA’s CTO and his team about the future. Later Thursday night I had a very quiet tour of the West Wing. Friday morning I was on a panel on The Need for Net Neutrality with Brad Burnham (Union Square Ventures) and Santo Politi (Spark Capital) followed by a dynamite meeting at the White House with Phil Weiser and members of the National Economic Council team, Aneesh Chopra (CTO of the US), and Vivek Kundra (CIO of the US). For two days I was immersed in government leadership.
Yesterday I woke up very late in the morning to Brad Burnham’s post titled Web Services as Governments. It’s a must read post where he makes several very specific analogies for which web services act like which kinds of government. He specifically breaks down which government he thinks Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist look like. While you may not agree with his mappings, the general construct is incredibly powerful when you think about creating a company that operates on top of a web service (or platform company.)
And then – after sleeping most of the day – I watched Thirteen Days. As I was immersed in it, I kept thinking about examples from Brad’s post as well as my experience dealing with web services that are powerful governments. When I think about those examples, Thirteen Days is a movie that every CEO and every member of the management team in these companies (or any company for that matter) should watch.
As a bonus, in both my CIA meeting and the Net Neutrality panel I got to toss out my line that “in 40 years we will not be able to distinguish between biological machines and non-biological humans. Basically the machines will take over and our goal should be that they are nice to us.” After waking up this morning feeling much more rested, it was extra fun to see a huge NY Times titled Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday about the Singularity.