Artificial Intelligence researcher Andrei Dobrescu - Class of 2009
|29 Jul 2018|
|WM Summer 2018 edition|
WM: Thanks for being here with us. Can you start by giving us a quick summary of your educational pathway right up to university?
AD: I started my education at my local Romanian school in Bucharest. In the middle of fourth grade, my mother got a job offer to work in New York. It felt scary at first, but I went with her and did two years, grades 5 and 6, in a small town in New Jersey. Going from the Romanian to the American school system was a very positive experience for me. I learned English and I saw that school can be more than just memorizing as much as possible. We then came back to Romania and I completed grades 7 and 8 in a Romanian school. I really wanted a change and knowing the American school system, I applied for the AISB scholarship program that year and I got in. I spent 4 years at AISB between grades 9-12.
WM: In your opinion, what are the biggest educational and co-curricular advantages AISB has to offer?
AD: AISB is great because of the diversity it has to offer. I enjoyed the mix of school work and the wide variety of after school activities. Going to the competitions at the end of the season was a highlight of the semester. The IB is also a great program. It is tough while you’re in it but it does a good job in preparing you for University. Finally, I think meeting and spending time with people from all over the world is important to understand that we live in a global community.
WM: Where did you go to university and what did you study at an undergraduate level?
AD: For my undergraduate degree I went to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and I studied biotechnology.
WM: What followed your undergraduate degree?
AD: After my undergraduate degree, I did a Master’s in systems and synthetic biology also in Edinburgh. Although biology is a fascinating subject, I realized that I wouldn’t enjoy the day to day job of working in a lab. At this point I started to get into programming and liked it so I investigated how I could change fields. While doing odd computing jobs, I applied for PhD’s and I got a scholarship to research computer vision and artificial intelligence.
WM: How difficult is the path you have chosen and what motivates you to continue it?
AD: My path to get here was quite unorthodox given that I didn’t have a programming or math background, so it meant a lot of self learning, online courses and tutorials. The motivation comes from learning a very interesting subject and the potential applications and impact of this technology. I’ve lived in Scotland for almost 9 years now so it’s my second home. Edinburgh is a great city to study and live in. It is big enough that there is plenty to do but small enough that you can get everywhere on foot or with a bike.
WM: Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic right now, what do you think are some important things we should know about it?
AD: First of all, artificial intelligence is a powerful tool but still in its infancy. Even the term intelligence is somewhat misleading because at the moment, is not really intelligence as we perceive in humans or animals, but an algorithm learning a very specific task very well under strict parameters. As with most new technologies, articles in the media often portray it as more advanced than it is. The speed of development is very fast, but we are still very far from the AI systems present in science fiction. It’s main strength is that it can analyze huge amounts of data very quickly and the goal is to get close to human level accuracy. Currently we are using AI algorithms that exist already in services like facial recognition for Facebook, Google translate, Amazon’s Alexa, and self-driving cars.
WM: What social impact will this technology have?
AD: The short answer is it’s hard to say. The most obvious social impact will be the big potential wave of unemployment due to some jobs being replaced by computer algorithms, but the extent is unknown. There will be a big impact if self driving cars and trucks become the norm as the transportation sector is huge. In the future, I think people will also become more accepting of algorithms and interacting with machines.
WM: Will it be the last invention mankind will have to make?
AD: No, I don’t think so. This technology is ultimately a tool that is still just a part of a larger system.
WM: What is being done to ensure this technology will become a tool that creates value for mankind?
AD: The main reason for its development is to save resources by increasing efficiency. As the technology is still in its infancy, there currently isn’t much restriction around it. That said, once it becomes more mainstream, regulation is soon to follow. From an academic point of view, social impact studies are done regularly to make sure that our work will have a positive social impact.
WM: Our generation will be associated with AI and we bear the responsibility of setting the foundations for how we develop further from here and how we will interact with this technology. What should the leaders in research do to make sure mankind can thrive with AI? Does each person have a responsibility to this end?
AD: I think it will be important for industry and research leaders to educate people on how they can live and contribute in an increasingly automatized world. More and more people are impacted by automation and AI development will only intensify the trend. Human capital will still be very important because computers are unlikely to come anywhere near comparable levels of creativity or critical thinking. I think a balanced approach is best, where companies should have the freedom to develop their business how they see fit but also contribute more closely to help society. I think talks of universal basic income will increase in the following decades.
WM: It is clear from the interview that predicting the evolution of AI is not an easy task, as we enter very much into the unknown. That explains also our fear. Assuming we successfully integrate AI into our lives and societies, how do you see mankind's future with AI? What will our lives look like?
AD: I think it will have a net positive impact in our lives. With every big technological leap there will probably be an initial impact, but humans have proved to be great at adapting. It is hard to predict the future but I think our lives would get easier and we will become more technology reliant as AI systems become more advanced. The best example is the Internet and how it is a relatively new invention but it has become hard to imagine life without it. It is likely that helper robots will become mainstream and we would probably not even think twice about using fully automated services. As with every technology, there is the potential of using it for malicious purposes but overall, I think it would be very valuable.
WM: What can AISB do to better prepare its students for the realities of life with AI moving forward? What educational programs can they implement at a foundational stage to pave the way for student careers in this field?
AD: AISB and schools in general should teach students how to adopt new technologies and use them to their advantage rather than shy away. Critical thinking and creative problem solving are becoming more and more important and will most likely continue to be strictly human qualities. Foundational courses in computing and programming would be important as we move toward a more digital world.
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