Editor’s note: In the first of several in-depth interviews with Alexander Ferguson, CEO and founder of YourLocalStudio.com, talks with Richard Boyd, founder of Carborro-based Artificial Intelligence firm Tanjo about AI – what is it, what can it do, what it means for the world in years to come as a disruptive force.

The video is part of a series, UpTech, from YourLocalStudio which is partnering with WRAL TechWire to publish the series, including full transcripts of the interviews.

Welcome to UpTech Report’s series on AI. I’m Alexander Ferguson. This video is part of our deep dive interviews, where we share the wealth of knowledge given by one of our panel of experts. For our first interview I sat down with Richard Boyd, founder of Tanjo in Carrboro.


Richard is an entrepreneur, author, and speaker on a range of topics from education to virtual worlds to machine learning. Here we ask him how does he define and apply artificial intelligence in business as well as how it applies to our every day lives?

“Well I mean artificial intelligence is a technology that’s been around for a long time and it used to mean one thing, especially to us in computer gaming, right? You wouldn’t ask a computer to do something unless or until a human being understood that thing completely. And then you would just program those rules into the computer and tell it what to do.

“Now that’s fine as long as it’s something we understand, but when you start looking at things like I recall when we first looked at autonomous vehicles in the early 2000s, right?

“We were out in the desert with one of those early DARPA challenges watching as all these vehicles were going across the desert and hitting rocks or losing the GPS signal. It’s because we human beings really still don’t understand how do humans even drive cars. How can we tell a machine to do something we don’t understand?

“There’s a lot of talk around creating artificial intelligence, right, that mimics human intelligence, but we don’t understand how the brain works. There’s a lot of big efforts out and there’s the Blue Brain Project out, in I believe it’s in Switzerland or Austria, somewhere out there, and other big projects trying to understand all those deep constructs of the brain, but we don’t understand how it works.

“The big breakthrough for autonomous vehicles and everything else was this new phase of machine learning where a human being doesn’t even have to understand how to do something. You can actually just take some really good machine learning libraries, feed in all of the data, like lots and lots, massive amounts of data, and have them infer their own understanding. That’s why we have autonomous vehicles today. And today you can just take 100 hours of video of driving, give that to some well-designed machine learning libraries and cars can go out there and drive flawlessly.

“So that’s the big breakthrough. I always think of it in terms of three stages. The first stage was when, you know, we wouldn’t ask a computer to do something unless a human understood it completely. Then you program in, like, a finite state machine or hierarchical behavior trees, that kind of thing. And then in this phase we’re in now is where we’re looking for a data scientists.

“How do we get enough data? And that’s the real challenge today. How can I find enough data that’s relevant that can train a system reliably on whatever it is I’m trying to teach it. The organizational knowledge of a law firm or how to drive a car, how to navigate to Mars, those sorts of things. And that’s the issue today is how do we get enough data, get it into the right shape so that machines can derive meaning from it?”

  • What is data exhaust and why is it important?

It’s a term that just applies to, you know, as we ramble around the internet we leave little cookies and little behavioral patterns around behind us of, like, what were we interested in. You know, Google, is tracking, you know, where we go on the internet, which pages, how long do you stay at each page, and that ends up creating an interesting model around, like, what are you’re real interests.

And, you know, there are location services on your phone that can track the behavior of where you actually go physically in the world and how often you spend at different places during the day and how long do you sleep at night. All that goes in to data exhaust and it can be used for both good purposes and, of course, you know, nefarious purposes, I guess, is a way to say it.

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And I think that’s one of the things that’s happening with technology today when you look at what Cambridge Analytica did with that data exhaust in order to identify people who were susceptible to certain kinds of information and then move them from one belief position to another that we’ve seen can have some deep effects in society.

That shows that this stuff is powerful and, you know, how do we use it for good and that’s where we’re really focused is how do I help empower people by helping them take control of their own data exhaust so they can direct it to representing their values to government or representing their values to the companies that they interact with. if you’re buying a car from a company or you’re shopping or whatever.

We found out that machine learning systems really can’t tell the difference between data exhaust around an organization or a topic or a person. So now we’re getting to this area where we can build models of people and their behavior if we have enough data exhaust around people and that’s getting very interesting.

  • How is AI disrupting and enhancing our lives?

It’s the machine age, right? It’s the automation age and, you know, there’s a lot of concern around displacement of workers and automation. I mean, it started with when we started replacing bank tellers with automated tellers, right? That was a disruptive thing that concerned a lot of people.

Now we have checkout stations in grocery stores that are automated and that’s just the beginning of it, just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not just those sorts of really rudimentary tasks that are being automated. We’re automating all sorts of things This discussion today is like what should, and I think every organization, every government, every person, again, should be thinking about every activity they’re involved in and thinking what should machines be doing and what should human’s be doing? And the answer to that question is changing every single week almost now.

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You mentioned the industrial revolution, the industrial age. You know, we had some time, I guess in 1800, 91% of everybody in the United States was involved in agriculture and in 1900 it was, like, 41%, today it’s two. So we had 200 years or more to adapt to automation using industrial methods, right? And we found stuff for people to do. The challenge today is that the same thing is happening but it’s happening on a very compressed scale. And the positive side of this is there are things that humans should arguably not be doing.

Assembly line work was a big breakthrough in the last century, but when I see human beings standing there, like, doing a repetitive task over and over all day, and I’ve seen this firsthand in chicken factories, in automobile factories and elsewhere. I look at at that I say, “Why is “a human being doing that today? “How fulfilling is that job?” And when you talk to those people they’re like well, you know, I’m getting paid and that’s why I’m doing this activity. But, you know, the real lie for them is when they punch out at the end of the day. Then they actually enjoy their life.

And people like me and my team who’ve started out and we’ve had this Peter Pan existence, you know, building computer games and working on Hollywood films and that kind of thing, it’s the like the work that you do where every day you come to work and some part of your day you’re in flow, you’re in the flow state. You’re enjoying what you’re doing, right? And why can’t that be that way? Why can’t it be that way for everybody?

And I argue that it can, especially today with these technologies implemented, so. But it’s gonna be disruptive, it’s gonna make people who don’t like change uncomfortable and that’s why we need really strong leadership in every community and certainly in the country and in the world. And that’s why that’s critical that we all pay attention to that, because that leadership is very important. ‘Cause we’re gonna have to make some changes to all of the government systems and everything to adapt to this and actually make a better world.

Coming up next week: More of the Boyd interview.