joi ito and barack obama in conversation with wired


Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab director, joined President Barack Obama in a far-reaching conversation about the role of technology led by Wired editor, Scott Dadich.

Here are some highlights. Note, this conversation occurred before the election.


Ito on his concerns concerning AI.

This may upset some of my students at MIT, but one of my concerns is that it’s been a predominately male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings. A lot of them feel that if they could just make that science-fiction, generalized AI, we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society. They think machines will just figure it all out for us.

But they underestimate the difficulties, and I feel like this is the year that artificial intelligence becomes more than just a computer science problem. Everybody needs to understand that how AI behaves is important. In the Media Lab we use the term extended intelligence1. Because the question is, how do we build societal values into AI?


Obama on the government’s tech debt.

There is a whole bunch of work we have to do around getting government to be more customer friendly and making it at least as easy to file your taxes as it is to order a pizza or buy an airline ticket. Whether it’s encouraging people to vote or dislodging Big Data so that people can use it more easily or getting their forms processed online more simply—there’s a huge amount of work to drag the federal government and state governments and local governments into the 21st century. The gap between the talent in the federal government and the private sector is actually not wide at all. The technology gap, though, is massive. When I first got here I always imagined the Situation Room would be this supercool thing, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, where he’d be moving around stuff. It’s not like that, at all. Particularly when it comes to hunting down terrorists on the other side of the globe, the movies display this omniscience that we possess somehow, and it’s—it’s just not there yet, and it has been drastically underfunded and not properly designed.


Obama on Star Trek.

I was a sucker for Star Trek when I was a kid. They were always fun to watch. What made the show lasting was it wasn’t actu­ally about technology. It was about values and relationships. Which is why it didn’t matter that the special effects were kind of cheesy and bad, right? They’d land on a planet and there are all these papier-mâché boulders. But it didn’t matter because it was really talking about a notion of a common humanity and a confidence in our ability to solve problems.

Star Trek, like any good story, says that we’re all complicated, and we’ve all got a little bit of Spock and a little bit of Kirk and a little bit of Scotty, maybe some Klingon in us, right? But that is what I mean about figuring it out. Part of figuring it out is being able to work across barriers and differences. There’s a certain faith in rationality, tempered by some humility. Which is true of the best art and true of the best science. The sense that we possess these incredible minds that we should use, and we’re still just scratching the surface, but we shouldn’t get too cocky. We should remind ourselves that there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know.


The saddest quote ever, perhaps, from Ito:

I think we’re in a golden period where people want to talk to each other. If we can make sure that the funding and the energy goes to support open sharing, there is a lot of upside. You can’t really get that good at it in a vacuum, and it’s still an international community for now.


The whole conversation is great, even if, on occasion, there’s this sinking feeling like you’re watching some once possible golden future quickly accelerate into the distant past.



  1. Extended intelligence is using machine learning to extend the abilities of human intelligence.