Episode 17: A Conversation with James Barrat

In this episode, Byron and James talk about jobs, human vs. artificial intelligence, and more.



Award-winning documentary filmmaker James Barrat is the author of the groundbreaking nonfiction book, Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (Thomas Dunne, 2013). Named a Huffington Post Definitive Tech Book of 2013, Our Final Invention explores the daunting risks of developing advanced Artificial Intelligence, risks that include the weaponization of AI in an international ‘intelligence arms race,’ and the annihilation of mankind at the hands (or bytes) of superintelligent machines. For two decades, James Barrat’s documentary films have set viewer ratings records for National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, and other broadcasters in the U.S. and Europe. Barrat’s films cut across cultures and eras to tell thrilling, deeply human narratives of archeology, science, and expedition-adventure. Some of his best known titles include, The Gospel of Judas, Herod’s Lost Tomb, and The Rise of the Black Pharaohs. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland.


Byron Reese: Hello, this is Voices in AI, brought to you by Gigaom. I am Byron Reese. Today I am so excited that our guest is James Barrat. He wrote a book called Our Final Invention, subtitled Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. James Barratt is also a renowned documentary filmmaker, as well as an author. Welcome to the show, James.

James Barrat: Hello.

So, let’s start off with, what is artificial intelligence?

Very good question. Basically, artificial intelligence is when machines perform tasks that are normally ascribed to human intelligence. I have a very simple definition of intelligence that I like. Because ‘artificial intelligence’—the definition just throws the ideas back to humans, and [to] human intelligence, which is the intelligence we know the most about.

The definition I like is: intelligence is the ability to achieve goals in a variety of novel environments, and to learn. And that’s a simple definition, but a lot is packed into it. Your intelligence has to achieve goals, it has to do something—whether that’s play Go, or drive a car, or solve proofs, or navigate, or identify objects. And if it doesn’t have some goal that it achieves, it’s not very useful intelligence.

If it can achieve goals in a variety of environments, if it can do object recognition and do navigation and do car-driving like our intelligence can, then it’s better intelligence. So, it’s goal-achieving in a bunch of novel environments, and then it learns. And that’s probably the most important part. Intelligence learns and it builds on its learning.

The Fourth Age

And you wrote a widely well-received book, Artificial Intelligence: Our Final Invention. Can you explain to the audience just your overall thesis, and the main ideas of the book?