Voices in AI – Episode 51: A Conversation with Tim O’Reilly

About this Episode

Sponsored by Dell and Intel, Episode 51 of Voices in AI podcast features host Byron Reese and Tim O’Reilly discussing autonomous vehicles, capitalism, the Internet, and the economy.

Tim is the founder of O’Reilly Media. He popularized the terms open source and Web 2.0.

Visit to listen to this one-hour podcast or read the full transcript.

Transcript Excerpt

Byron Reese: This is Voices in AI brought to you by GigaOm, I’m Byron Reese. Today our guest is Tim O’Reilly.

He is, of course, the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc. In addition to his role at O’Reilly, he is a partner at an early-stage venture firm, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, and he is on the board of Maker Media, which was spun out from O’Reilly back in 2012.

He’s on the board of Code for America, PeerJ, Civis Analytics, and POPVOX. He is the person who popularized the terms “open source” and “web 2.0.”

He holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard in the classics. Welcome to the show, Tim.

Tim O’Reilly: Hi, thanks very much, I’m glad to be on it. I should add one other thing to my bio, which is that I’m also the author of a forthcoming book about technology and the economy, called WTF: What’s The Future, and Why It’s Up to Us, which in a lot of ways, it’s a memoir of what I’ve learned from studying computer platforms over the last 30 years, and reflections on the lessons of technology platforms for the broader economy, and the choices that we have to make as a society.

AI-Artificial Intelligence Benefits & Risks

Well, I’ll start there. What is the future then? If you know, I want to know that right away.

Well, the point is not that there is one future. There are many possible futures, and we actually have a great role.

There’s a very scary narrative in which technology is seen as an inevitability. For example, “technology wants to eliminate jobs, that’s what it’s for.”

And I go through, for example, looking at algorithms, at Google, at Facebook, and the like and say, “Okay, what you really learn when you study it is, all of these algorithms have a fitness function that they’re being managed towards,” and this doesn’t actually change in the world of AI.

AI is simply new techniques that are still trying to go towards human goals. The thing we have to be afraid of is not AI becoming independent and going after its own goals.


It’s what I refer to as “the Mickey and the broomsticks problem,” which is, we’re creating these machines, we’re turning them loose, and we’re telling them to do the wrong things.

They do exactly what we tell them to do, but we haven’t thought through the consequences and a lot of what’s happening in the world today is the result of bad instructions to the machines that we have built.

In a lot of ways, our financial markets are a lot like Google and Facebook, they are increasingly automated, but they also have a fitness function.

If you look at Google; their fitness function on both the search and the advertising side is relevant. You look at Facebook; loosely it could be described as engagement.

We have increasingly, for the last 40 years, been managing our economy around, “make money for the stock market,” and we’ve seen, as a result, the hollowing out of the economy.

And to apply this very concretely to AI, I’ll bring up a conversation I had with an AI pioneer recently, where he told me he was investing in a company that would get rid of 30% of call center jobs, was his estimate.

And I said, “Have you used a call center?

Were you happy with the service?

Why are you talking about using AI to get rid of these jobs, rather than to make the service better?”

You know I wrote a piece—actually I wrote it after the book, so it’s not in the book—[that’s] analysis of Amazon.

Artificial Intelligence Good or Bad

In the same 3 years which they added 45,000 robots to their factories, they’ve added hundreds of thousands of human workers.

The reason is that they’re saying “Oh, our master design pattern isn’t ‘cut costs and reap greater profits,’ it’s ‘keep upping the ante, keep doing more.’”

I actually started off the article by talking about my broken tea kettle and how I got a new one the same day, so I could have my tea the next morning, with no interruption.

And it used to be that Amazon would give you free 2-day shipping, and then it was free 1-day shipping, and then in many cases, it’s free same-day shipping, and, this is why they have this incredible fanatical customer focus, and they’re using the technology to actually do more.

My case has been, that if we actually shift from the fitness function being efficiency and shareholder value through driving increases profits to instead actually creating value in society—which is something that we can quite easily do—we’re going to have a very different economy and a very, very different political conversation than we’re having right now.


Listen to this one-hour episode or read the full transcript at


Byron explores issues around artificial intelligence and conscious computers in his new book The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity.


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