Andrew Ng’s Next Project Takes Aim at the Deep Learning Skills Gap


Andrew Ng is a soft-spoken AI researcher whose online postings talk loudly.

A March blog post in which the Stanford professor announced he was leaving Chinese search engine Baidu temporarily wiped more than a billion dollars off the company’s value. A June tweet about a new Ng website, Deeplearning.ai, triggered a wave of industry and media speculation about his next project.

Today that speculation is over. Deeplearning.ai is home to a series of online courses Ng says will help spread the benefits of recent advances in machine learning far beyond big tech companies such as Google and Baidu. The courses offers coders without an AI background training in how to use deep learning, the technique behind the current frenzy of investment in AI.

“This sounds naïve, but I want us to build a new AI-powered society,” Ng tells WIRED. “The only way to build this is if there are hundreds of thousands of people with the skills to do things like improve the water supply for your city or help resource allocation in developing economies.”

Ng’s new courses cost $49 a month and are offered through online-education startup Coursera, which he co-founded in 2012, and where he still sits on the board. Ng says the project has left him enough time to start two other “cool” new projects in AI, so conjecture about what he’s up to continues.

With his new courses, Ng is offering a solution to a problem he helped create. His prominence comes from work on deep learning at Stanford and Google’s X Labs that helped prove machine learning could do transformational things for businesses. In a 2012 paper, he and co-authors described a system that learned to recognize cats in still images from YouTube without human help. Now there aren’t enough people with machine learning skills to go around.

A recent McKinsey report on the potential of artificial intelligence cited a shortage of talent as a problem for U.S. companies. A study of job ads from April found more than 10,000 vacancies in the U.S. for people with AI or machine-learning skills.

Ng isn’t alone in targeting the AI skills gap. Coursera rival Udacity will refund your tuition if you don’t get a job within six months of completing its machine-learning engineer course. More than 100,000 people have started a deep learning course offered by Fast.ai, a startup focused on widening use of AI. Large tech companies such as Google and Facebook offer free software and documentation to help people use machine learning.

Results from the frontiers of AI research may get more attention, but work on transforming machine learning from wizardry into plumbing has more immediate implications. “Deep learning is getting amazing results in just about every area it’s applied to, but there are a lot of areas where it hasn’t been applied much,” says Rachel Thomas, a co-founder of Fast.ai. If the burgeoning AI-education industry enables more companies to use techniques like machine learning, it could change many parts of the economy.

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