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On Artificial Intelligence and Society. Interview with Oren Etzioni

by Roberto V. Zicari on January 15, 2016

“We have a profound ethical responsibility to design systems that have a positive impact on society, obey the law, and adhere to our highest ethical standards.”–Oren Etzioni.

On the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on society, I have interviewed Oren Etzioni, Chief Executive Officer of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.


Q1. What is the mission of the Allen Institute for AI (AI2)?

Oren Etzioni: Our mission is to contribute to humanity through high-impact AI research and engineering.

Q2. AI2 is the creation of Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, and you are the lead. What role Paul Allen has in AI2, and what is your responsibility?

Oren Etzioni AI2 is based on Paul Allen’s vision, and he leads our Board of Directors and is closely involved in setting our technical agenda. My job is to work closely with Paul and to recruit & lead our team to execute against our ambitious goals.

Q3. Driverless cars, digital Personal Assistants (e.g. Siri), Big Data, the Internet of Things, Robots: Are we on the brink of the next stage of the computer revolution?

Oren Etzioni: Yes, but never mistake a clear view for a short distance—it will take some time.

Q4. Do you believe that AI will transform modern life? How?

Oren Etzioni: Yes, within twenty years—every aspect of human life will transformed.  Driving will become a hobby; medicine and science will be transformed by AI Assistants.  There will even be robotic sex.

Q5. John Markoff in his book Machines of Loving Grace, reframes a question first raised more than half century ago, when the intelligent machine was born: Will we control these intelligent systems, or will they control us? What is your opinion on this?

Oren Etzioni: It is absolutely essential that we control the machines, and every indication is that we will be able to do so in the foreseeable future. I do worry about human motivations too. Someone said: I‘m not worried about robots deciding to kill people, I’m worried about politicians deciding robots should kill people.

Q6. If we delegate decisions to machines, who will be responsible for the consequences?

Oren Etzioni: Of course we are responsible. That is already true today when we use a car, when we fire a weapon—nothing will change in terms of responsibility. “My robot did it” is not an excuse for anything.

Q7. What are the ethical responsibilities of designers of intelligent systems?

Oren Etzioni: We have a profound ethical responsibility to design systems that have a positive impact on society, obey the law, and adhere to our highest ethical standards.

Q8. What are the current projects at AI2?

Oren Etzioni: We have four primary projects in active development at AI2.

  • Aristo: Aristo is a system designed to acquire and store a vast amount of computable knowledge, then apply this knowledge to reason through and answer a variety of science questions from standardized exams for students in multiple grade levels. Aristo leverages machine reading, natural language processing, and diagram interpretation both to expand its knowledge base and to successfully understand exam questions, allowing the system to apply the right knowledge to predict or generate the right answers.
  • Semantic Scholar: Semantic Scholar is a powerful tool for searching over large collections of academic papers. S2 leverages our AI expertise in data mining, natural-language processing, and computer vision to help researchers efficiently find relevant information. We can automatically extract the authors, venues, data sets, and figures and graphs from each paper and use this information to generate useful search and discovery experiences. We started with computer science in 2015, and we plan to scale the service to additional scientific areas over the next few years.
  • Euclid: Euclid is focused on solving math and geometry problems. Most recently we created GeoS, an end-to-end system that uses a combination of computer vision to interpret diagrams, natural language processing to read and understand text, and a geometric solver to achieve 49 percent accuracy on official SAT test questions. We are continuing to expand and improve upon the different components of GeoS to improve its performance and expand its capabilities.
  • Plato: Plato is focused on automatically generating novel knowledge from visual data, including videos, images, and diagrams, and exploring ways to supplement and integrate that knowledge with complementary text data. There are several sub-projects within Plato, including work on predicting the motion dynamics of objects in a given image, the development of a fully automated visual encyclopedia, and a visual knowledge extraction system that can answer questions about proposed relationships between objects or scenes (e.g. “do dogs eat ice cream?”) by using scalable visual verification.

Q9. What research areas are most promising for the next three years at AI2?

Oren Etzioni: We are focused on Natural Language, Machine learning, and Computer Vision.

Oren Etzioni: We have just launched Semantic Scholar —which leverages AI methods to revolutionize the search for computer science papers and articles.

Qx Anything else you with to add?

Oren Etzioni: Please see: AI will Empower us and please give us your feedback on Semantic Scholar.

Dr. Oren Etzioni is Chief Executive Officer of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
He has been a Professor at the University of Washington’s Computer Science department since 1991, receiving several awards including GeekWire’s Hire of the Year (2014), Seattle’s Geek of the Year (2013), the Robert Engelmore Memorial Award (2007), the IJCAI Distinguished Paper Award (2005), AAAI Fellow (2003), and a National Young Investigator Award (1993).
He was also the founder or co-founder of several companies including Farecast (sold to Microsoft in 2008) and Decide (sold to eBay in 2013), and the author of over 100 technical papers that have garnered over 23,000 citations.
The goal of Oren’s research is to solve fundamental problems in AI, particularly the automatic learning of knowledge from text. Oren received his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in 1991, and his B.A. from Harvard in 1986.


MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE– The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots. By John Markoff.
Illustrated. 378 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think. Mayer-Schönberger, V. and Cukier, K. (2013)

Related Posts

– On Big Data and Society. Interview with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger,  ODBMS Industry Watch, Published on 2016-01-08

– Have we closed the “digital divide”, or is it just getting wider? Andrea Powell, CIO, CABI. January 1, 2016

– How can Open Data help to solve long-standing problems in agriculture and nutrition? BY Andrea Powell,CIO, CABI., December 7, 2015

– Big Data and Large Numbers of People: the Need for Group Privacy by Prof. Luciano Floridi, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford., March 2, 2015

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