Following part one of our exclusive interview here, Jeremy Howard continues to talk innovation, AI and why he doesn’t follow the herd…
Jeremy is a data scientist, researcher, developer, educator, and entrepreneur. A founding researcher at fast.ai, a research institute dedicated to making deep learning more accessible, he is also a distinguished research scientist at the University of San Francisco, the chair of WAMRI and is Chief Scientist at platform.ai.
Previously, Jeremy was the founding CEO of Enlitic, the first company to apply deep learning to medicine, and was selected as one of the world’s top 50 smartest companies by MIT Tech Review two years running. He was the President and Chief Scientist of the data science platform Kaggle, where he was the top ranked participant in international machine learning competitions two years running.
His ability to demystify AI and make it accessible to the general public have seen him make many media appearances around the world. Jeremy has invested in, mentored, and advised numerous startups, and contributed to many open source projects. He is also a co-founder of the global Masks4All movement – an all-volunteer organisation that started and powered the movement for people and governments to follow the overwhelming scientific evidence for the need to wear homemade masks in public to slow COVID-19.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve always shied away from the idea of role models or inspirational quotes. I never liked the idea of putting somebody on a pedestal because everybody is imperfect. And every time I started looking into anybody famous, I’d always discover all kinds of horrible things they had done as well. So I always like to be open to every individual being a mixture of good and bad. I guess I just like to explore things myself rather than rely on anyone else for inspiration.
So do you prefer to work alone?
These days I don’t collaborate hugely. I like doing stuff largely on my own. I tend to be very playful about how I approach things so I jump from one thing to another. I find that really important for keeping breadth and for keeping motivation. But I also realise it’s a level of flexibility that not many people are comfortable with.
I just try to maintain a very curious spirit so I do a lot of research into creativity and effective people. I’ve discovered there’s a bit of a common theme in that the really great innovators tend to keep a playful and curious mind.
What keeps you awake at night?
I’ve got a young daughter so I worry about the sort of world she’s going to grow up in. Obviously, that involves the increasing move towards populist, fascist, authoritarian leaders and the deterioration of democracy around the world, particularly in America.
I also worry about the environment and inequality. So many people don’t have access to resources and that pulls us all down because we don’t get to benefit from all the brilliant minds out there. I particularly dislike gatekeeping, which is like another layer on top of the lack of access. Many people intentionally try to limit access that people have and that drives me crazy.
Has your daughter announced she wants to be a nuclear physicist?
Not yet! She’s only five but she’s interested in absolutely everything, which is great. So she loves art, music and dance but she also loves coding and math. I just try to let her express her interest in everything and see where it goes.
How do you relax?
I like spending time with my family and we love being outside. I’m lucky enough to have some nice hikes around here in north California so I like to go out and discover pretty parts of nature. Music used to be a very major part of my life and I played a number of instruments. But I got pretty bad RSI and so I had to stop playing music a few years. I’m hoping to get back into it though.
Do you miss Australia?
Yes very much. Coming to the Bay area in the US was great for my self-confidence and for finding kindred spirits, which is so difficult to do in Australia. But Australia does seem a lot more sane than the US! And I certainly miss the food. But most of all, I miss the generosity of spirit. If somebody is having a hard time in Australia, there’s generally an assumption that’s because they’re unfortunate. Whereas in the US, there’s a lot of people who feel if somebody’s having a hard time, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough or that they deserve it in some way. That attitude really scrapes at my soul.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
That tenacity is the number one skill to learn and practice. It’s what I talk to my daughter a lot about. I’ve often noticed that when I start learning something new, like Chinese for example, I find myself surrounded by other enthusiastic people, learning that same thing. But then there’s this rapid drop-off where everyone who had all these big plans just drifts away. You can see their enthusiasm shriveling. And I’ve always found myself the only one left. I find that really weird. Even when I was launching start-ups, I’d see all the other companies disappear. It wasn’t because I was doing anything amazingly better than anybody else, but it was the fact I just kept going.
What’s your next big project?
I’ve been working for a few years on making AI more accessible. I’ve still got a long way to go with that. But I’m also into building software products that can be made more accessible and AI is just one piece of that. So I’m trying to expand into this broader question of ‘How do we make it easier for people to build software products and deploy them?’ Increasingly, I’m finding that will almost certainly entail AI.
What do you think will be the next big development in AI?
I have no idea. I don’t do predictions because they’re pointless. What I will say is that the foundation we have right now with AI is proving to be very strong and very flexible and that will be built upon. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of what we can do with what we already have.