why valley execs need to stop prognosticating
When you’re a CEO of a tech company in Silicon Valley, your job often consists of going to some navel-gazing summit where everybody talks about “disruption” and “social media landscapes” along with whatever trendy buzzwords were introduced into the tech lexicon that month, get on stage, and convince everyone around you that the next iteration of a filter button on your Facebook/Twitter/Foursquare knock-off, or using an AJAX script for faster searches is going to change the world as everyone knows it. No wonder there are so many fans of transhumanism ala Kurzweil in the Valley. They’re constantly being told about how their world is going to get turned upside down and all time will be measured as pre-Next Big Thing and post-Next Big Thing, and Ray is a good enough salesman to recognize and hijack this trend. The problem with this, of course, is that Valley’s chiefs and investors promising grand breakthroughs on the horizon, seldom know what they’re talking about when they wander into academic, research-intensive parts of computer science like artificial intelligence.
Recently the bloggers at TechCrunch talked with Russian tech investor Yuri Milner and obtained a gem of a quote that sent yours truly reeling. Apparently, Milner thinks that we’ll see the emergence of functioning artificial intelligence in only ten years, and that it’s going to emerge from social media, specifically Facebook. But don’t take my word for it, check out the paraphrased quote for yourself and check out the video in the link…
I think that when you have billions of people connected and the unprecedented pace of exchange of information then you need filtering mechanisms. And now we’re in the very early stages where your friends and networks are doing it for you, like on Twitter and Facebook. Or [using] the Google approach, where there are a whole bunch of machines that are learning fast. And I think there will be a convergence between those two models. And I think Facebook will be one of those platforms from which AI will emerge in the next ten years.
Obviously, Milner has never seen Failbook. If this is the future of AI, I quit. Really, I don’t need a PhD that badly. You know, I was hoping to research the kind of artificial intelligence that could work in synch with us, augment our abilities, and make the last second crucial decisions we should be making, but don’t have the opportunity to make today, but if all we’re really interested in doing is building a better filtering mechanism to serve up an ad someone might care about? This is the forward-looking, revolutionary Silicon Valley I hear so much about and that’s spoken about in worshipful whispers by economists and international experts? Trapped in making one social media clone after another, thinking that it’s going to be an incubator for AI and foster cutting edge computer science? This is a place that went up in dot com flames when its geniuses figured out that making online businesses wasn’t a guarantee of cash flow, and now is home to countless cutesy named startups in search of a business model that actually brings in revenue. The Valley is the only place where you can own a piece of a $40 billion company that makes as much as a mom and pop car repair shop down the street in a good year, and still be considered a visionary genius ahead of some curve.
So far, the Web 2.0 business model seems to be “let’s get a lot of users, then try to go through their profiles to show them some ads they might find relevant.” Why does that sound familiar? Oh yeah, because there’s a big company that already does exactly that. It’s called Google. You might have heard of it. It’s worth $160 billion or so, makes north of $5 billion in profits for doing just that. And guess what? You’re not going to build a Google Jr. because Google is a really big and really powerful company that won’t let you do that. They’ll muscle you to sell anything of value to them as soon as possible, then they’ll gut your business and send you on your merry way because that’s how they roll. Facebook is no better. As long as it’s getting bankrolled by investors whose magical shares are worth billions on the private market, it can act rough and tough with anyone who presents any serious threat to their domination of social media. If you already don’t have a niche in Web 2.0, you may as well not bother at this point. It’s probably for the best too since for all their huffing and puffing, even Facebook’s handlers haven’t found them a viable business model that manages to turn having half a billion users into a big business actually worth its salt. The company would get pummeled were it to go public.
Here’s a humble proposal to the Valley. How about you keep talking about “social media landscapes,” adding “social layers” to your sites, and “disrupting existing business models” while the people who actually work on tools related to artificial intelligence focus on those? Social media may be a tool for expert systems, but it will not be an incubator for them. That’s not how these systems work. In fact, the advances of such expert systems would be used to create better filters for your next TweetFaceSpaceSquare, not the other way around.