Meet the world's leading expert on artificial intelligence
Oren Etzioni was Harvard's first student to major in computer science. Today, he's leading an entire industry into the future.
Oren Etzioni loves "Star Trek." Sure, he's not one of the those fans who dress up as Spock in a pointy-eared costume for Comic-Con, but that doesn't make him any less devoted to the sci-fi franchise. To him, the tale of a misfit crew journeying across space exploring the cosmos, is both clever and tantalizing in a way that only a scientist would appreciate.
While "Star Trek" continues to mesmerize audiences – CBS is premiering a highly anticipated reboot this month – Etzioni has chosen to set his sights on a field that's more science than fiction: artificial intelligence, more commonly known as AI. Believe it or not, it's something that we already interact with on a daily basis. "Think of all the conversations that Amazon Echo – a 'smart speaker' present in an increasing number of homes – is privy to, or the information that your child may inadvertently divulge to a toy such as an AI Barbie," Etzioni wrote in a recent New York Times editorial. "Even seemingly innocuous housecleaning robots create maps of your home."
The 53-year-old knows what he's talking about. Etzioni is one of the world's leading experts in artificial intelligence. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and the owner of the Seattle Seahawks, opened the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in 2013 and chose Etzioni as its head. Business Insider has called Etzioni "the most successful entrepreneur you've never heard of."
Etzioni got interested in artificial intelligence while still in high school, shortly after moving from Israel to the United States. "I read the book 'Gödel, Escher, Bach' and that got me hooked," he told From The Grapevine during a recent interview. This wasn't a "Harry Potter" for a previous generation; the 1979 tome was described as "a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll" by its publisher.
The book sparked something in the overachieving Etzioni, who would become the first student to major in computer science at Harvard. "When I was a freshman, it was the first year where they realized, 'Hey, this computer science thing is not a fad. It's a real scientific discipline.' So that's my claim to fame," he recalled, laughing.
After graduating from the Ivy League, he became a professor himself, at the University of Washington. He was constantly looking for ways to take what he was teaching in the classroom and apply it to the real world. So he co-founded half a dozen startups. One was acquired by Microsoft, another by eBay. They were all related to machine learning, a phrase he is credited with coining. One, called Farecast.com, predicted the best times to purchase airline tickets. It's now a part of Bing's search engine. At the Allen Institute, Etzioni incubates other AI startups and helps them get off the ground.
Etzioni works out of the Institute's Seattle headquarters, but the 53-year-old Tel Aviv native returns to Israel every year where much of his family still resides. "I love the country," he said.
While artificial intelligence has its tentacles in so many different industries, Etzioni is betting big on one area in particular: driverless vehicles. As far as he's concerned, the auto industry is one of the most dramatic areas where this AI innovation is taking place. He's bullish about this because he's hoping to do something monumental – decrease traffic accidents. "The estimate is 80-90% of these accidents that are error from people could be prevented," he explained. "I've got a kid that I'm worried about texting and driving. I'm worried about people drinking and driving. I'm worried about them drinking and driving and hitting me. This is a huge opportunity. I'm very excited about it and I think it's going to save a lot of lives."
For Etzioni, this is why AI is so exciting. "We're looking at major paradigm shifts." And he knows that what's really driving the coming era of automated vehicles is human innovation. When asked what's the most surprising thing he's learned in his artificial intelligence research, he doesn't miss a beat, responding: "How amazing, incredible, awesome, awe-worthy the human mind is."
Before we hang up, we ask him one more pressing question: What other movies about artificial intelligence does he like besides "Star Trek"? "There's a brand of science fiction that's very dystopian, that talks about how the world's going to get much worse," he told us. "I'm too much of an optimist to get a lot of pleasure out of reading that stuff."
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