Episode 12: A Conversation with Scott Clark

In this episode, Byron and Scott talk about algorithms, transfer learning, human intelligence, and pain and suffering.



Scott is co-founder and CEO of SigOpt, a YC and a16z backed “Optimization as a Service” startup in San Francisco that helps firms tune their ML and AI pipelines. Scott has been applying optimal learning techniques in industry and academia for years, from bioinformatics to production advertising systems. Before SigOpt, Scott worked on the Ad Targeting team at Yelp leading the charge on academic research and outreach with projects like the Yelp Dataset Challenge and open sourcing MOE. Scott holds a PhD in Applied Mathematics and an MS in Computer Science from Cornell University and BS degrees in Mathematics, Physics, and Computational Physics from Oregon State University. Scott was chosen as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in 2016.


Byron Reese: This is Voices in AI, brought to you by Gigaom. I’m Byron Reese. Today our guest is Scott Clark. He is the CEO and co-founder of SigOpt. They’re a SaaS startup for tuning complex systems and machine learning models. Before that, Scott worked on the ad targeting team at Yelp, leading the charge on academic research and outreach. He holds a PhD in Applied Mathematics and an MS in Computer Science from Cornell, and a BS in Mathematics, Physics, and Computational Physics from Oregon State University. He was chosen as one of Forbes 30 under 30 in 2016. Welcome to the show, Scott.

Scott Clark: Thanks for having me.

I’d like to start with the question, because I know two people never answer it the same: What is artificial intelligence?

I like to go back to an old quote… I don’t remember the attribution for it, but I think it actually fits the definition pretty well. Artificial intelligence is what machines can’t currently do. It’s the idea that there’s this moving goalpost for what artificial intelligence actually means. Ten years ago, artificial intelligence meant being able to classify images; like, can a machine look at a picture and tell you what’s in the picture?

Now we can do that pretty well. Maybe twenty, thirty years ago, if you told somebody that there would be a browser where you can type in words, and it would automatically correct your spelling and grammar and understand language, he would think that’s artificial intelligence. And I think there’s been a slight shift, somewhat recently, where people are calling deep learning artificial intelligence and things like that.

It’s got a little bit conflated with specific tools. So now people talk about artificial general intelligence as this impossible next thing. But I think a lot of people, in their minds, think of artificial intelligence as whatever it is that’s next that computers haven’t figured out how to do yet, that humans can do. But, as computers continually make progress on those fronts, the goalposts continually change.

I’d say today, people think of it as conversational systems, basic tasks that humans can do in five seconds or less, and then artificial general intelligence is everything after that. And things like spell check, or being able to do anomaly detection, are just taken for granted and that’s just machine learning now.

I’ll accept all of that, but that’s more of a sociological observation about how we think of it, and then actually… I’ll change the question. What is intelligence?