Christoph Auer-Welsbach, Partner, IBM Ventures, Founding Director, City AI

AI-Enabled Future: Opportunity Or Dystopia?


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Here Christoph Auer-Welsbach exclusively shares his thoughts on these issues and other burning questions with CorD magazine, after giving his keynote speech at the Wonderland AI Summit in Belgrade.

AI has grown to become the driving force behind the fourth industrial revolution. This is a burning and important topic, but the term ‘AI’ is still not totally clear for many in practise. How would you describe what AI is to a non-technical person?

Basically, AI is just a technological framework; a tool that we need to ensure it is properly used, meaning in a diverse and responsible way to fulfil the real social needs of humanity and the world, reflecting each and everyone’s cultural, educational and environmental backgrounds. This is important, as AI is having a vast impact on our lives already. As we can anticipate now, AI exponentially amplifies all things human, the good and the bad. Herein lies the opportunity, but also the risk.

You founded City AI to bring together not only industry experts, but people with various backgrounds and various perspectives – business, production, investment, science and more – with the mission of “enabling the diverse and responsible development and application of AI”. What are some of City AI’s main goals and major milestones reached so far?

The City AI foundation has become a global, decentralised organisation that’s mostly run and driven by volunteers. Over the past three years, more than 70 cities in 50+ countries have become active through 300+ volunteering ambassadors, which – for instance – hosted and facilitated over 250 events, but also data science and machine learning workshops and boot camps, as well as global initiatives such as the ‘AI Ecosystem Wiki’ that we launched three weeks ago. As ambassadors who are aligned with the vision, we aim to further develop local AI ecosystems by raising awareness and facilitating education and, ultimately, collaboration. We are thereby ensuring that any AI stakeholder can be involved and will be heard and become part of the AI community. One thing is important though: as City AI, we aim to unite and enable the AI community globally to collaborate, and not to be stand alone parts of the AI community ourselves.

We’re not done yet, which is why we’re always seeking more people, whether to support existing cities or activate new ones.

We’ve made tremendous progress in previous decades, but we’re still only scratching the surface when it comes to solving grand challenges, such as fighting cancer or nerve damage, creating cheap or even free fusion energy, or creating new, advanced materials, to name just a few areas

AI provides one of the greatest opportunities for humanity – but many also see it as a threat or a risk. As with all groundbreaking technologies and innovation, the situation is never black or white. For instance, pattern or facial recognition can be used for both amazing or terrible things. What can we do to reap the benefits and avoid the threats or, so to say, to move more in the direction of a utopian rather than a dystopian ‘AIenabled future’?

I believe that awareness, education and collaboration are the key drivers towards the diverse and responsible development and application of AI. The more people understand, and are therefore able to take action together, the higher the chances of any new technology or invention reflecting the common needs and wishes of humanity and the world. It’s our duty to be responsible for AI, and this means that the outcome is solely dependent on us. As technology becomes ever more accessible, the chances of achieving a utopian vision increase, but we’ll always be on the verge of dystopia, as technology often progresses faster than our ability to steer it.

What are some of the key steps or measures needed to apply ethical principles to AI?

As previously mentioned, we need to make people and organisations accountable for the outcome of applying AI in production at scale, as we do with any other technology. In order to do this, I advocate for creating design principles, in this case ethical ones, as well as aligning certain practises to ensure the decision making process is a) transparent and b) comprehensible.

Christoph Auer-Welsbach

Right now, we’re facing the challenge that the term “ethics” seems to be overused, while at the same time the technology is often not understood well enough, creating a mismatch when discussing the applying of ethical principles to AI. It is actually quite simple: in the past we didn’t think about ethics when introducing speed limits on motorways, but we wanted to protect humans from potentially deadly accidents and therefore came up with rules to guide the development and application of vehicles and the environment.

What are your personal favourite applications of AI? In which areas and industries do you see the greatest potential to benefit from AI?

I don’t have a favourite application to be honest. Personally, I’m obviously a huge fan of proper weather predictions and routing applications, as they make my life, and those of billions of others, easier. Lots of current applications are still only solving an ‘unpleasant’ problem rather than a ‘real’ one.

We’ve made tremendous progress in previous decades, but we’re still only scratching the surface when it comes to solving grand challenges, such as fighting cancer or nerve damage, creating cheap or even free fusion energy, or creating new, advanced materials, to name just a few areas. We’ll get therein the end, but – as Gary Marcus states – “it might happen in the next 15 years. It certainly will happen in the next 500 years—there’s no mathematical reason why it can’t be done”.

What can start-ups learn from major corporations and vice versa?

To me the answer is always the same: start-ups are agile and can react to their environment, e.g. customers, quickly; corporations have a developed culture and processes that enable them to scale their operations. As a start-up, I encourage every founder to build 100-year companies, to get into the mindset that both characteristics are necessary along the journey. So, start-ups could spend more time to make themselves understood as a 100+-year-old industry and successful corporations dozens of years old in order to leverage wisdom and market access, while corporations need to embrace a more fearless culture in order to open their structures to remain agile and enable them to leverage innovation for their coming 100 years.

As we can anticipate now, AI exponentially amplifies all things human, the good and the bad. Herein lies the opportunity, but also the risk

We live in a world that’s facing complex environmental, political and economic challenges, and in order to solve these challenges we need partnerships, communities and cross-border cooperation. There is also a need for cooperation between companies, governments, individuals and so on. Where does City AI fit into this whole picture?

City AI has been set up as a charitable non-profit organisation in the Netherlands, decentralised in its organisational structure, with the goal of being a platform for likeminded people, volunteering ambassadors, AI practitioners and AI stakeholders to engage with us. This platform will create a common vision and enable everyone to leverage that vision to facilitate activities aimed at achieving our mission. City AI is an AI community project in which everyone should participate. Each AI community member not only has the means to shape it, but also the obligation to ensure that they utilise their skills and resources wisely. Hence, City AI is trying to develop, initiate and run various activities, such as the AI Ecosystem Wiki, which will help ever more people become aware and get educated and able to collaborate on developing diverse and responsible AI.

Is the “city” in the name City AI also a metaphor for communities (like the Greek Polis as the cradle of Culture and Democracy), or is it more of a coincidence? There are also many popular (and very needed) initiatives like green cities, agile cities etc. How did you opt for the word ‘city’ when founding and naming the movement?

The term “city” was chosen for two reasons: 1) We identified cities as the smallest location-bound structure where communities are shaped and flourish; a very beneficial side effect is that cities are usually melting pots, which supports our “diversity” mission element perfectly; 2) We’re growing fast and the community asked for a global organisation to be put in place where the best option we could choose was the “city” itself. It would be great if “City” became a synonym for our mission with regard to AI as “Polis” is, but there’s still a long way to go. 😉

How do you think AI will impact on the way we interact with computers and each other in the future?

As I stated at the beginning, AI is a tool. It will impact humanity massively, just as it already has over the past 20 years. Without optimised machine learning in production at scale, smart phones mostly wouldn’t be useful. Looking back, AI has thus enabled us to connect millions of people, if not billions, to make the world a more transparent place, further reducing issues such as warfare, hunger and disease by providing access to knowledge and the services necessary for us to live as one large community. This will accelerate over the coming years, while the interaction with devices might also increase, but I’d personally prefer my environment to interact with itself, so that I could mostly focus on real-life interactions.

*This interview was conducted with the interviewee in his role as the founding director of non-profit organisation City AI and reflects Christoph Auer-Welsbach’s personal opinions. It is not related to IBM Corp and does not reflect IBM Corp’s opinions!

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