David Moloney: ‘AI is at a once-in-a-lifetime inflection point’

29 Jun 2017

David Moloney, director of machine vision technology at Intel. Image: Maxwells

David Moloney believes countries such as Ireland have a rare chance to embrace their edge in AI and deep learning, otherwise they risk being flattened by change.

The news last year that Irish tech firm Movidius was being acquired by chip giant Intel sent shockwaves throughout the tech scene because it was the strongest signal yet that the world was moving inexorably in a different direction, at quantum speed.

For Movidius co-founder David Moloney, who will be speaking at next week’s Inspirefest, it is a statement of intent. Because Intel does everything at hyper scale.

‘The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Embrace AI or be flattened’

In 20 years, we have gone from computers being beige boxes on desks, to supercomputers in our pockets. Now we are in the dawn of an age where computing will be everywhere around us, with the potential to out-think us or augment our reality.

At the coalface of this revolution was an Irish company called Movidius, whose technology I described last year as the Pentium of the machine age, not realising it would be Intel itself that would own Movidius within the year.

And indeed, Movidius is empowering the machine age, bringing deep learning and artificial intelligence capabilities to a plethora of devices.

For example, Movidius chips were at the heart of Google’s Project Tango effort to enable next-generation smartphones to sense the room around them.

Movidius technology powers the Spark drones from DJI, which are capable of flying from the palm of your hand and responding to gestures. Chinese tech giant Lenovo is using Movidius technology to power future VR experiences. And last year, the company was the first in the world to put deep learning technology onto a USB stick.

“Intel had a big picture in mind when it acquired Movidius,” Moloney explained. “Deep learning and AI are going to have a transformative effect on technology as we know it, changing everything from devices to infrastructure.”

Moloney has always managed to find himself at the bleeding edge of technology. I met him and his co-founder Sean Mitchell in the late 1990s when they worked at Parthus on Harcourt Street, and they demoed a prototype for what would later become Apple’s iPod Nano.

It is worth paying close attention to his instincts on what’s coming next.

What will be the next big thing?

The interesting thing about Movidius’ technology is how quickly it has spread across mobile phones and computers.

“We are working with DJI on their latest Spark drone and our chip is doing everything from capturing imaging and video, to recognising gestures. The drone will recognise your face, you point where you want it to go without using a remote control, and wherever you go, it follows you.

“There’s no reason for anyone to want to buy an SLR camera anymore if you have functionality like that. It’s amazing how the learning curve around drones has developed. DJI has done an incredible job for something that didn’t exist four years ago.”

As the machines get more intelligent, Moloney’s instincts are that deep learning will soon enable machines to duplicate human experiences and expertise.

And, for economies and nations, the opportunity is either to embrace the curve or be left behind.

“To get a sense of the speed of change, just look at Google’s acquisition of Kaggle,” he said. Kaggle has half a million data scientists on its platform, and it is the de facto home for running data science and machine learning competitions.

According to the MIT Technology Review, deep learning has already proven adept at spotting patterns in x-ray images that are too subtle for the human eye to catch.

“Think of a doctor with 30 years of experience of looking at tumours – now all of that can be done by machine. In the financial world, all of JP Morgan’s compliance work is being done by machines.

“Essentially, with deep learning, we will be able to duplicate human experience and expertise. It is amazing and worrying if you have built a lifelong business based on expertise.

“The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Embrace AI or be flattened.”

AI is the way forward

Rather than see AI and deep learning as threats that could take people’s jobs, Moloney urges countries such as Ireland to start putting resources in place so that the country can be ahead of the curve.

“Deep learning is actually a way for smart people to seize the opportunity and repurpose themselves.

“AI is at a once-in-a-lifetime inflection point. We need to give the people the tools and the skills to embrace a technology that will transform industries like law and medicine in the same way that the internet broke down barriers to retail.”

Moloney cited a new development spearheaded by the IDA to create AI-based computer science degrees in Irish universities, by bringing together industry and academia, as the way forward.

“Ireland needs to make AI and deep learning a priority in terms of education, and play to the country’s strengths. If you think of the effect the internet has had on our lives in the last 20 years, it is not going to come close to what the effects of deep learning will be.

“Ireland needs to get the maximum number of people into this area that we can because it will have a massive effect on all of our industries.”

Up until now, ICT has occupied an area of strategic prioritisation for Ireland’s respective industries from a research perspective, but now the pendulum is swinging towards deep learning and AI.

Ireland has opportunity to bring diversity to AI

“AI isn’t perfect. While it offers the potential to do great things, it also offers the potential to mess things up,” said Moloney. He warned that machine learning is still in its infancy and so crude that it inadvertently picks up the world’s biases.

“Someone recently created an algorithm to write restaurant reviews and it ended up writing negative reviews of Mexican restaurants because of negative press about Mexican people in the media during the US elections.”

Moloney said there is a lot of work to be done in making sure AI and deep learning technologies are created in an ethical way. He added that there is also a need for AI to embrace diversity and remove biases that are creeping into machines that learn and that are a reflection of the wider world.

“There is a big advantage for Ireland as a country to focus on AI, but also diversity.

“It’s the right thing to do from an economic perspective. In AI, diversity enables you to build better products. If you have a more diverse team, you can build products with less bias.

“Ireland is a small country that can really maximise its available workforce to capture opportunities in AI. And, given the under-representation of women in the tech industry, we can get more people involved and move the dial forward.

“Ireland can differentiate in a positive way by taking a leadership position and by embracing the need for greater diversity. In this area, we would be unique.”

Intel integration

Almost a year into being acquired by Intel for an undisclosed sum, Moloney said the integration into the biggest chip manufacturer on the planet has gone smoothly.

“We’re still on D’Olier Street, working hard on future products. It is always challenging when you try to integrate a 100-person company into a 100,000-strong company, but Intel has been careful to guide us through the process.

“When we accepted Intel’s offer, it was with a view towards proliferating our technology by getting the benefit of Intel’s scale.

“So far so good, and we are going from strength to strength.”

David Moloney will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years