Based in Finland, Mikko Kotila describes himself as an “intelligence innovator, internet researcher and adtech whistleblower”. He started playing around with numbers and computers around 35 years ago and learnt to program before he could read. He’s an expert on machine intelligence and natural language processing, has spoken at over 100 global conferences on topics related to research, communications, data science and computing and co-authored the Compendium of Ad Fraud Knowledge in collaboration with the World Federation of Advertisers to expose the massive scale of fraud in digital advertising. He shares his perspective with Creative Sparq on human and artificial intelligence, morality, philosophy and the boundless opportunity for creativity that presents itself when we work on solutions that improve the well-being of others. In his words, “Love is the killer app”.
What do you do and how did you start your journey?
I’m a recovering internet innovator. I was one of the first in Europe to get seriously into building the browser based internet. I think I fit the more classic definition of a “researcher” - someone who takes the time to understand the theory, and then sometimes applies it somehow. I started playing with numbers and computers around 35 years ago when I learned to program before I knew how to read. Today I work as a full-time volunteer on a number of projects. I believe in ethical behavior, formal study of philosophy and daily meditation practice.
What are these projects you are involved in and why are they important to you?
I believe that the society should be more about people, and less about whatever it is now. So I try to involve myself with things where that’s the case. I’m trying to keep my website mikkokotila.com updated with my current projects.
Among other things, I’m the principal of Botlab. Botlab is a non-profit foundation that is the maintainer of Nameles, an open source fraud detection solution for online advertising that is endorsed by World Federation of Advertisers, and Autonomio, the first open source deep learning platform that supports both non-programmer and advanced data scientist use. For the past 3 years I have been the acting Chair for I-COM’s Data Science Board.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, creativity will be the 3rd most required skill by 2020, following complex problem solving and critical thinking. What does “creativity” mean to you in the context of your work in artificial intelligence ?
I think creativity is something we can’t talk about like we can talk about, for example, strategy. Like when we say “thinking out of the box”, that’s just a new box. Actually, thinking is the box. So the best way I can put it, is using Taoist internal arts as a reference point- Your Shifu will give you minimal instructions, and might scold you for asking questions, but will tell you time and time again to “just do it”. Creativity is like that.
How did your move from digital advertising to artificial intelligence come about?
I got in to the internet development game because I was interested in the idea of intelligent agents. Around the mid-nineties before browsers became popular, that was a serious line of thought. But we all ended up making interactive company brochures instead, and that’s what everyone seems to be doing still today. There is almost zero creativity in the internet space. In 2001 I joined the semantic web movement, which led to natural language processing few years later and then I just never stopped.
There is a lot of anxiety around the rise of robots and the loss of jobs that will get automated as a result of artificial intelligence. How dire is this view?
A lot of people died building the pyramids, lots of slaves. Now we can build similar things without anyone dying, and with no need for slaves. A few hundred years ago people were used mindlessly to produce power. Now people are looking for a cure for cancer. The whole point of automation is to allow people to focus on things that contribute something meaningful. By meaningful I mean something that helps people to suffer less.
At the same time, it’s said that a machine will always lack the creativity of humans and will not actually be able to create something new and useful without human intervention. What do you think?
Can I create an eco-system of legos where the legos make legos? Where they 3D print new custom lego blocks as opposed to just building surprising constructs from the available pieces. Maybe I could do that today. But we will never be able to make human intelligence. Why? Because every intention, every thought and feeling, are completely interconnected with everything else. This is the essential point of cause-and-effect. We could have machine intelligence do all kinds of things, but it would never be human intelligence, because it comes from a different set of causes and conditions. Creativity is associated with human intelligence, so it is right to say that machine will always lack it. To argue with this, shows a profound misunderstanding of what intelligence is.
Many leaders of science and technology such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates etc, have recently expressed concern about the risks of AI. What are the main risks that AI poses and what can policy makers and researchers do about it?
We have to slow down and not buy in to the hype. For example, if you introduce machine intelligence to healthcare, some of the results are evident only a few decades from now. That’s a really hard problem to solve in itself. That’s the hardest problem related with AI. Morality is the key to handling that problem properly. None of the people you mention have significant background in AI development and sadly all seem to lack basic perspective provided by formal study of philosophy. We should learn from the greats of modern science — Nils Bohr, Jung, and Leibniz — who were all adept in Eastern contemplative traditions. Bohr quoted the Buddha on his death bed and chose the yin-yang sign as his coat of arms in the physics hall of fame. These are good role models for those working in the field of AI.
What are going to be the main developments in artificial intelligence over the next decade in your opinion?
We have to solve the problem of problem solving. Machine intelligence will be very beneficial in that respect. Once we know how to solve problems, then we can focus on other problems. More importantly, we have to radically change the way early education plays out. All of the problems in the world are underpinned by that one problem.
What are the problem areas that AI is not focused on but should, to make society a better place?
Morality. Helping people understand better the causality associated with their everyday decisions. Helping them understand how much suffering their actions cause. Also, some form of personalized, decentralized and entirely free education system. Universal education, but personalized.
What should parents and schools be doing to help kids prepare for the jobs of the future?
"Data scientists" will be for the next coming decades what engineers were for the past ones. Parents and schools should help children prepare for jobs in data science.
Is there a role that the arts (liberal arts, performing arts etc.) can play in preparing people to adapt to a world that will be reshaped by artificial intelligence?
I think the Bauhaus vision of “Art and Technology, A New Unity” is becoming relevant now. But I think a formal study of philosophy, especially related with knowing and knowledge, and morals, is more important. Even more important is to meditate every day. That will have tremendous impact on the future of the world where machine intelligence makes most of our decisions and influences most of the decisions we will be making.
Who or what inspires you?
My teachers, and anyone who makes a sincere effort in putting others’ interest ahead of their own.
You speak 7 languages. How did that come about?
I guess I spent a lot of time in countries where nobody spoke English. At some point I became quite fascinated with how any language could be learned to a certain level without any help, and developed a method that made it fun. I probably know a few more, but my level is very limited. I have the utmost respect for true polyglots, it’s very impressive what those guys can do. Fearless learners.
Is there anything you would like to add regarding the nature and value of creativity that will have an impact on the future?
A lot of people in the world are really focused on the transactional aspect of our interactions. There is no room for creativity in that. The true essence of being a human is to consider the well-being of others as the most important thing. In that we find boundless opportunity for creativity. Love is the killer app.
Finally what do you do to fuel your creativity?
Meditate every day, and when I feel too tired, take a good rest. When you want to do something, do it completely, like when fire is burning or river is flowing. Be grateful for being alive and everything that comes with it.
About The Interviewer: Ayesha Kohli
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy, Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses.