In this episode, Byron and Adrian discuss intelligence, consciousness, self-driving cars and more.
Adrian leads Zendesk’s Product Management, Engineering and Operations teams. Prior to Zendesk he was CTO at Attributor and, as general manager, ran the video compliance business from first customer sales to business unit acquisition. Previously he was the VP of Engineering for Plumtree/BEA where he started as the first engineer hired by Plumtree and worked through the Plumtree IPO and subsequent acquisition by BEA. Prior to Plumtree Adrian worked as an itinerant software consultant in London, Hong Kong, Sydney and Guam. He has a 1st Class Honours Degree in Computer Science from De Montfort University.
Byron Reese: This is Voices in AI, brought to you by Gigaom. I’m Byron Reese. Today our guest is Adrian McDermott, he is Zendesk’s President of Products where he works to build software for better customer relationships, including, of course, exploring how AI and machine learning impacts the way customers engage with businesses. Adrian is a Yorkshireman, living in San Francisco, and he holds a Bachelor of Science and Computer Science from De Montfort University. Welcome to the show, Adrian!
Adrian McDermott: Thanks, Byron! Great to be here!
My first question is almost always: What is artificial intelligence?
When I think about artificial intelligence, I think about AI as a system that can interact with and learn from its environment in an independent manner. I think that’s where the intelligence comes from. AI systems have traditionally been optimized for achieving specific tasks. In computer science, we used to write programs using procedural languages and we would tell them exactly what to do at every stage of that language. With AI, it can actually learn and adapt from its environment and, you know, reason to a certain extent and build the capabilities to do that. Narrowly, I think that’s what AI is, but societally I think the term has a series of connotations it takes on, some scary and some super interesting and exciting meanings and consequences when we think about it and when we talk about it.
We’ll get to that in due course, but back to your narrow definition, “It learns for its environment,” that’s a pretty high bar, actually. By that measure, my dog food bowl that automatically refills when it runs out, even though it’s reacting to its environment, it’s not learning from its environment; whereas a Nest thermometer, you would say, is learning from its environment and therefore is AI. Did I call the ball right on both of those, kind of the way you see the world?