Raleigh Native/Duke Alum’s “Genius Makers” Profiles AI Pioneers

"Genius Makers" author Cade Metz. His book goes on sale next Tuesday, March 16, with a launch event that night at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books.

How far will we let artificial intelligence go? This is one question that Duke alum Cade Metz explores in his new book Genius Makers, which will be released Tuesday, March 16.

Metz will also host a virtual event about the book with Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh that night.

Metz, a Raleigh native, said he is a product of both of his parents’ backgrounds, who met at IBM after attending Duke at different times. Metz’s father was an electrical engineer while his mother studied economics but has a English major’s sensibility, Metz said. 

When Metz studied at the family’s most cherished university, he majored in English but interned at IBM as a programmer over the summers, giving him the perfect mix of writing and technology insight to become a technology correspondent for The New York Times starting in 2017.

In Genius Makers, Metz aims to spotlight the people behind arguably the world’s most important emerging technology: artificial intelligence, or AI.

“I always felt that in literature, in books like the one that I’ve written, engineering types were underrepresented,” Metz said. “This was a stereotype of ‘engineers are boring and nerdish and maybe not worth writing about.’ I think the opposite is true.”

While working at WIRED magazine in San Francisco before his stint at the Times, Metz reported on important changes in the tech industry. Neural networks, which are mathematical systems that can learn tasks on their own by analyzing data, were suddenly “in.” This is the technology behind face recognition systems or how Siri is able to respond to you.

But back after it originally was developed in the 1950s, many scientists and companies abandoned the technology. 

“Although it had been around from the ’50s, most people assumed that it would never work,” Metz said. “It was kind of a failed idea. And then suddenly around 2010, this idea started to re-emerge. It now drives so much of the technology we use.”

Beyond face recognition and Siri, driver-less cars and parts of Google’s search engine operate with neural networks and AI.

Metz was fascinated by the tiny group of people who, despite the increasing skepticism over the decades, continued to believe in and work with artificial intelligence neural networks. Suddenly, with enough data and processing power in the 2010s, it started to really work.

The engineers and scientists who were working on it all along were immediately sucked into the biggest companies on Earth, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, Metz said.

That’s part of the story Metz has focused on in his book, that these “idealistic people” spent decades nurturing this idea and were suddenly faced with these large corporations—and it became clear that this exciting technology could potentially go very wrong.

Concerns over AI are plentiful, whether it’s in military weapons, picking up human biases in face recognition or in creating fake images or news, especially so-called “deepfakes.”

As capabilities increase, so do concerns

Over the past four years, we’ve seen the turmoil created by Twitter and Facebook and how they affect our daily lives with elections, politics and the spread of potentially false and dangerous ideas, Metz said. And those are just the relatively simple technologies.

“As we get to these more complex technologies, it becomes a real concern,” Metz said. “But at the same time, the way our society works, this technology will just continue to be improved and expanded. So there’s no way of putting the genie back in the bottle.”

This makes you wonder what the endgame is, he said. There are certain people who believe we are on track to develop a system that can do anything the human brain can do, and some worry how this could harm humanity.

These are just some of the issues that guided Metz in writing Genius Makers. Ultimately, for Metz, a good book is about good characters.

Genius Makers interweaves the life stories of real artificial intelligence researchers. 

Geoffrey Hinton was born in London right after World War II. Hinton came of age while neural networks were seen as a failed theory, but he decided to study AI in a time where no one did that. It wasn’t something anyone believed in, but Hinton latched onto it.

Hinton never sits down due to a back injury from when he was a young adult, so he cannot fly or drive. This didn’t stop him from making a pilgrimage across North America via bus and train to get his ideas in front of large companies like Microsoft.

In the end, all the big corporate players were bidding for these technologists, Metz said. These stories are part of his larger goal to show the excitement that can occur in the lives of those behind the technology.

“Part of my aim was to show that the people who build the technology like the engineers and computer scientists, coders and mathematicians can be just as interesting, just as fascinating and wind up in situations that are just as dramatic as anybody else,” Metz said.

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About Suzanne Blake 146 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. She is also a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Reach Suzanne at suzanne@grepbeat.com.