The Man Behind Google Brain On Life, Creativity, And Failure

(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty)

Here’s a list of universities with arguably the greatest computer science programs: Carnegie Mellon, MIT, UC Berkeley, and Stanford. These are the same places, respectively, where Andrew Ng received his bachelor’s degree, his master’s, his Ph.D., and has taught for 12 years.

Ng is an icon of the artificial intelligence world with the pedigree to match, and he is not yet 40 years old. In 2011, he founded Google Brain, a deep-learning research project supercharged by Google’s vast stores of computing power and data. Delightfully, one of its most important achievements came when computers analyzing scores of YouTube screenshots were able to recognize a cat. (The New York Timesheadline: “How Many Computers to Identify a Cat? 16,000.”) As Ng explained, “The remarkable thing was that [the system] had discovered the concept of a cat itself. No one had ever told it what a cat is. That was a milestone in machine learning.”

Ng exudes a cheerful but profound calm. He happily discusses the various mistakes and failures of his career, the papers he read but didn’t understand. He wears identical blue oxford shirts each and every day. He is blushing but proud when a colleague mentions his adorable robot-themed engagement photo shoot with his now-wife, a surgical roboticist named Carol Reiley (note his shirt in the photo).

One-on-one, he speaks with a softer voice than anyone you know, though this has not hindered his popularity as a lecturer. In 2011, when he posted videos from his own Stanford machine learning course on the web, over 100,000 people registered. Within a year, Ng had co-founded Coursera, which is today the largest provider of open online courses. Its partners include Princeton and Yale, top schools in China and across Europe. It —> Read More