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AI Hype is a Huge Problem, According to This PhD

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This post is part of our AI Experts Series, which profiles leaders whose insights can help expand your understanding of artificial intelligence and how to apply it.
Today's spotlight features a conversation we had with   Dr. Neil Yager, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at Phrasee


AI + You

In a single sentence or statement, tell us what you do.

I do research & development in machine learning and natural language generation at Phrasee.

How do you define AI? (Or, what’s your favorite definition of AI?)

Getting computers to do “smart” things. By “smart,” we mean the sorts of things that humans and other animals do all the time. This includes vision, communication, reasoning, learning, etc.

Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, has stated that, “AI is probably the most profound thing humanity has ever worked on.” Do you agree? Why, or why not?

This is the hype machine at full throttle.

How did you get started in AI?

I did a PhD in a related field. At the time, I would have said that I worked in “statistical pattern recognition” or “machine learning.” It is only in the past few years that the term “artificial intelligence” has gained popularity and is now used as a catch-all term for a number of areas.

"I was blindsided by the power of deep learning. It has solved problems that I never thought would be solved in my lifetime."

What’s your favorite example of AI in your daily life that most consumers take for granted, or don't even realize is made possible by AI?

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a classic example of AI. I’m still surprised at how well computers can read my messy handwriting.

Postal services have been using OCR to help sort mail since the 1960’s. I love this example because it shows that AI has been around, and part of our lives, for much longer than most people realize! 

What excites you most about AI?

The unknown. I was blindsided by the power of deep learning. It has solved problems that I never thought would be solved in my lifetime. I have no idea what the next breakthrough will bring. And that’s what excites me!

What worries you most about AI? How could it go wrong?

Since the 1950’s the tech world has gone through a number of AI “hype cycles.” We are currently near one of the peaks.

The technology is being over-hyped by many companies, and I fear a backlash against the field as a whole when those companies fail to deliver on their promises.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about AI?

There are some deep and profound mysteries about the human cognition (e.g. consciousness and free will). However, these mysteries don’t yet apply to machine intelligence. AI is not mysterious and magical. Anybody with an interest in the topic can understand the basic concepts underlying the technology.

What skill or trait do you believe has the greatest chance to remain uniquely human for the foreseeable future?

I have trouble imagining an advanced AI creating long-form fiction that humans enjoy. The stories we find compelling are intimately intertwined with the experience of being human.

Who has the greatest influence on how you think about AI and the future?

A Google AI/deep learning researcher named François Chollet. On one hand, he avoids hype and favors intuitive explanations over unnecessarily complex ones. On the other hand, he often shares his excitement about the tremendous untapped potential of the deep learning.

What is a recent advance in AI that blew your mind?

I am fascinated by the technology behind deep fakes (but terrified by the implications).

"Postal services have been using OCR to help sort mail since the 1960’s. I love this example because it shows that AI has been around, and part of our lives, for much longer than most people realize!"

If you were entering college, knowing what you know now, what would you study?

I wouldn’t change a thing. When I did my PhD in AI in the mid-2000’s I wasn’t sure it would lead to job opportunities. AI was a rather obscure field with limited commercial applications. However, several years after I graduated my skill set was suddenly in demand.

I wish I could say I planned it this way, but it was all luck!

If you were the dean of a business school, what is one thing you would do right now to start better preparing students for the intelligently automated future?

The field of AI is evolving extremely quickly. The biggest pitfall would be teaching students about specific technologies that are obsolete by the time they graduate.

However, some topics are timeless, such as ethics and how to thinking critically about technology. I’d make course in these mandatory. 


Marketing + AI

What advice would you give to marketers looking to pilot AI in their organizations?

Focus on the value it will bring. It may be advanced technology, but is it solving a problem that is important to you? 

What is the biggest challenge marketers should plan for as they scale AI?

Some vendors won’t deliver on their promises. Don’t let this taint your experience with the field as a whole.

What question(s) would you advise marketers ask vendors who claim to have AI-powered technology?

Before worrying about what is going on under the hood, ask how performance/ROI is measured. Ideally, improvements over existing solutions can be quantified.

What percentage of marketing tasks will be intelligently automated to some degree in the next five years?

  • 0%
  • 1 – 10%
  • 11 – 25%
  • 26 – 50%
  • 51 – 75%
  • 76 – 99%
  • 100%

Which three marketing categories will experience the greatest disruption from intelligent automation in the next five years?

  • Account-Based Marketing
  • Advertising
  • Analytics
  • Communications
  • Content Marketing
  • Conversational
  • Customer Service
  • Data Management
  • Email Marketing
  • Public Relations
  • Research
  • Sales
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Social Media Marketing
  • Strategy
  • Other

What’s one marketing job you see AI fully automating and eliminating in the next five years?

There are some tasks, like bid management, that are numerical optimization problems. People should not be doing this by hand.

What’s one marketing job you see AI creating that doesn't exist today?

Marketing teams will need to have AI ecosystem and integration specialists. Keeping track of what systems are out there, what they do, and how they communicate with each other will become a specialty of its own.

What can marketers do to ensure the ethical use of AI in their marketing?

Ask vendors difficult questions. Who do they work with, and what safeguards do they have in place to make sure the technology is not misused?

How can brands achieve personalization without invading privacy?

People differ on what information they are comfortable sharing. Therefore, companies and brands working on personalization can’t have a “one-size-fits-all” solution. They must allow people to set their own boundaries.

How can brands become more human as they intelligently automate tasks and roles?

As some tasks get automated, resources should be reinvested into the human and creative elements of marketing.

"AI is not mysterious and magical. Anybody with an interest in the topic can understand the basic concepts underlying the technology."

What resource(s) would you recommend to marketers who want to understand and apply AI?

It can get a bit heavy and technical at time, but there is a wonderful podcast called “Artificial Intelligence with Lex Fridman.” Each episode is an interview with one of the world’s top AI researchers or thinkers.

You can check out the podcast here


Rapid Fire

Voice assistant you use the most?

  • Alexa
  • Google Assistant
  • Siri
  • Don’t use voice assistants
  • Other

More valuable in 10 years?

  • Liberal arts degree
  • Computer science degree
  • Other: CS major with a minor in liberal arts.

First publicly traded technology company to reach $2 trillion market cap?

  • Alibaba
  • Alphabet
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Facebook
  • Microsoft
  • Tesla
  • Other

Preferred cloud for building AI solutions?

  • Amazon Web Services (AWS)
  • Google Cloud
  • Microsoft Azure
  • Don’t use or prefer any of them
  • Other: IBM

Best guess, how long until we achieve artificial general intelligence (AGI)?

  • 1 – 5 years
  • 6 – 10 years
  • 11 – 20 years
  • 21 – 50 years
  • 51+ years
  • Never

What does an AI agent win first (or at least share with a human)?

  • Nobel Peace Prize
  • Oscar
  • Pulitzer
  • Won’t win any of the above

Favorite AI movie?

Her (2013, Joaquin Phoenix).

Favorite AI book?

Deep Learning with Python by François Chollet.

Favorite AI-powered marketing technology your company uses that regularly reduces costs and/or increases revenue?

There are lots of great AI products on the market these days, serving a range of marketing use cases like personalization and customer intelligence. It’s now finally possible to use AI to optimize one crucial element in the marketing mix: language.

Obviously, I would recommend Phrasee’s AI-Powered Copywriting. By generating and optimizing short-form marketing copy like email subject lines and push messages, Phrasee’s tech is freeing up creative teams to be more creative. It also drives engagement and conversion results. We work with some of the world’s biggest brands, and some are making millions in incremental revenue with our product.

I know it is kind of obvious that I would be an advocate of Phrasee, but I really believe that the work we’ve been doing is having a powerful commercial impact on marketing across the board, and everyone should check it out.

Favorite piece of AI content you've created that you'd like to share with our readers? Include any relevant links.

"Neural text generation: How to generate text using conditional language models."

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