An Interview with AI Entrepreneur Peter Voss

One-on-one with the man who not only believes human-level artificial intelligence is possible, but is leading a team of software engineers to build the world's first working prototype.

It has been said that if you were to take money from the wealthy and redistribute it in equal portions to everyone on the planet, within a few short months the money would end up right back in the hands of those who had originally created it.

Peter Voss is a useful example of that principle.

Born in Germany and raised in South Africa, Voss got kicked out of his home at sixteen and never completed high school. After working various odd jobs, the last of which exposed him to the exciting world of electronics, in 1980 he started his own computer systems company to provide turnkey solutions to medium-sized businesses.

His growing company soon made him a millionaire. After the company's IPO, however, excessive expansion crippled profitability and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy — taking all of Voss's newfound wealth with it. Undeterred, he picked up the pieces and re-built the business, this time capitalizing on what he had learned the first time.

He reports that making yourself a millionaire is indeed much easier the second time. Voss sold the company in 1992 and retired, devoting the next few years to studying his passions of psychology, epistemology, ethics, futurism, and various aspects of artificial intelligence.

In late 2001 he rolled up his sleeves a third time, this time founding Adaptive AI Inc., a company comprised of a half-dozen visionaries and programmers whose stated goal is "to develop and commercialize an effective — and probably the first — general intelligence software engine."

Sound ambitious? We thought so too. Here's the conversation that ensued between Peter Voss and the Atlasphere's Joshua Zader.

The Atlasphere: Let's jump in the deep end. What does it actually take to become a millionaire?

Peter Voss: I wish I could give you a sound-bite answer. Undoubtedly for some people it's burning financial ambition, and for others it may be a matter of proving themselves to others.

For me, however, wealth or recognition are not the primary drives. Rather, it has always been my passionate desire to create something new, something of real value — some ambitious innovation or development that advances the quality of human life.

At some level, it seems that self-confidence and healthy self-esteem — in Nathaniel Branden's sense, feeling capable and deserving — are key success factors. On the other hand, repeated financial success also involves a lot of specific money-making skills and the knowledge that one acquires through experience and practice. That's why it becomes easier the second and third time around — or with the help of a mentor.

So perhaps my one-liner is: Having the passion and ability to create value, and the skill to monetize it.

Peter Voss, circa 1974
TA: That makes sense. How did you get your own start as an entrepreneur?

Voss: My first proper business — leaving aside part-time motorcycle restoration and chicken farming — was Electronics Designs, a one-man repair and custom design/manufacturing operation, which I started at 25.

This was just when micro-computers had appeared on the scene. Within a year I had fallen in love with programming and my business had turned into a computer systems company. Seven years later we were a public company, employing several hundred people.

TA: What got you interested in artificial intelligence?

Voss: It's hard to pin down the genesis. I know that at around age ten or eleven I was thinking about automating the thinking process in some way, long before I knew about programming.

Understanding and innovating artificial intelligence — and, incidentally, philosophy — have been natural goals to me since I first came across them. Later on, my professional experience with electronic control systems, computers, and programming languages, plus a personal passion for psychology and philosophy, morphed into a focused AI research and our current efforts to develop an AI engine.

TA: So how did Adaptive AI Inc. come about?

Voss: After selling my company I turned my attention to psychology, philosophy and AI — researching, developing, and writing.

Eight years later I had developed a fairly comprehensive theoretical model for AGI [artificial general intelligence] and started coding a proof-of-concept prototype — an extremely ambitious undertaking.

At that time, a good friend of mine whom I hadn't seen for a number of years pointed out that I was crazy working on this by myself. He was right, of course, and in spite of severe financial constraints I managed to assemble a team of six people.

Here we are, three years later, with some seed money and lots of sweat equity. Our cost-effectiveness is further boosted by most of the team sharing a house!

Voss's long-time girlfriend, Louise Gold
TA: I hear you have a tongue-in-cheek name for the team, the "AI Kommune." How's communal life?

Voss: It's going really well. Even though we've had quite a bit of staff turnover, pretty much everyone has become friends. For the past year our team spirit has been particularly good; we really enjoy living and working together. It helps to have a shared vision.

TA: What are your long-term plans?

Voss: My company recently passed a major milestone. We transitioned from doing proof-of-concept research to starting actual development and construction of the real thing — a functional, high-level artificial general intelligence prototype, or AGI.

This is quite a large undertaking, expected to take three to four years, and employing about forty people. In order to fund this work, we just spent several months developing and detailing our business plan and building a demonstration system. The demo helps us communicate the power of AGI in general, as well as our particular approach and technology.

As exciting and rewarding as this multi-year project will be, both technically and commercially, my ultimate goal is to employ this technology to help solve mankind's most important — and so far largely intractable — problems of life and flourishing: disease, ageing and other existential risks; and poverty, education and pollution, especially in the developing world.

This technology will also have a dramatic impact on more philosophical issues such as objective legal systems and governments.

TA: That sounds ambitious, to say the least. Do you encounter skepticism from other researchers? If so, how do you respond?

Voss: Yes, at this stage very few researchers in the world believe that human-level AI will come about any time soon, if ever. Even fewer claim to know how to do it. I have extensively researched the reasons behind these negative views. My company's website has an analysis of the many misconceptions, blind spots, and practical factors involved.

TA: How does your approach differ from other AI applications, such as expert systems?

Voss: There are a number of important differences. Let me mention two key points: First, our system acquires and adapts its knowledge and abilities through learning instead of having to be explicitly programmed. Like a human, it can learn through interaction with the environment, from a teacher, and by studying or thinking.

Second, the system's intelligence operates via a contextual network of concepts, including abstractions, instead of being based on hard-coded rules, semantics or databases.

These two features help overcome some traditional problems of AI: brittleness and lack of grounding, or "common sense."

TA: I understand you're seeking some additional visionaries to serve on your advisory board. Can you say more about what kind of people you're seeking?

Voss: Smart, rational, practical, wise. Futurists — currently or potentially. People with an appreciation for the implications of full-blown AGI.

Ideally, board members would also have high-level business experience and contacts to help us get fully funded. AI background is optional. This panel will help to shape the difficult decisions ahead: attracting and structuring appropriate equity and other partnerships, managing company growth, deciding on specific applications and commercialization, and brainstorming intellectual property and technology implications.

Voss has been a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast

TA: How has Ayn Rand's philosophy influenced your work?

Voss: I came across Rand relatively late in life, about 12 years ago.

What a wonderful journey of discovery — while at the same time experiencing a feeling of "coming home." Overall, her philosophy helped me clarify my personal values and goals, and to crystallize my business ethics, while Objectivist epistemology in particular inspired crucial aspects of my theory of intelligence.

Rand's explanation of concepts and context provided valuable insights, even though her views on consciousness really contradict the possibility of human-level AI.

TA: Which views are you referring to?

Voss: Primarily, the view that volitional choices do not have antecedent causes. This position implies that human-level rationality and intelligence are incompatible with the deterministic nature of machines. A few years ago I devoted several months to developing and writing up an approach that resolves this apparent dichotomy.

TA: Apart from philosophy and AI, what are your other passions?

Voss: Health, life-extension, and futurism are other key interest of mine. I practice CRON (calorie restriction with optimal nutrition) and generally keep up-to-date with advances in medical and health research.

As mentioned before, I really see my AI work helping to bring about better health and longevity, as well as accelerating the development of exciting and life-enhancing technologies.

Given this context, my main focus right now is on continuing to assemble the team of advisors, partners, and other smart people that will help us turn our AI vision into reality.

For more information about Peter Voss's company and its innovative work, visit the web site for Adaptive A.I. Inc.

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To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.