Toine Rodenburg: Interview at the Frontier of Cyberspace

Toine Rodenburg remembers when the Internet was an arcane new innovation based on dial-up technology and boxy Macintoshes. He began to imagine its possibilities in the early 90s, soon after earning degrees at an array of prestigious European universities, from the Moller Institute and the Katholieke Universiteit in Tilburg to the Universiteit van Amsterdam and the Institut Catholique de Paris.

His course of study, emphasizing philosophy and theology, never seemed to be the ideal foundation for a career in cyberspace — until now. With the advent of AI, Toine Rodenburg is positioned as the perfect observer of this new technology, a man who understands not only the technical details, but also the profound implications of artificial intelligence.

Recently he shared his thoughts with Entrepreneurship Life on what the future holds for AI, the Internet in general and his own worldwide entrepreneurial ventures.

Q: You are well-known for your work in e-commerce, particularly with your MyMalls international shipping company. What led to your interest in AI?

Toine Rodenburg: I think at every stage of the development of the Internet, I’ve constantly been wondering: What comes next. That’s helpful from a business perspective, of course — having a grasp of market trends and emerging new technologies is a vital component of creating successful companies. But beyond that, I’ve always been excited by new frontiers.

What I haven’t experienced myself, I’ve read about extensively. I was particularly fascinated by the earliest version of the Internet, the U.S. Defense Department’s ARPANET. I’ve read the biographies of industry greats, from Steve Jobs to Sergey Brin. When it comes to new technology, on both the micro and macro level I’m an early adopter.

AI is something entirely new to human existence, of course; and it seems to have happened so suddenly. Only yesterday computer algorithms were used for what were essentially minor tasks, such as managing telemarketing decision trees. Today, AI-powered computing is writing everything from term papers to wedding vows. For me, as an entrepreneur, these exponentially expanding capabilities provide new opportunities, in my global shipping business and with other ventures that suddenly become not just possible, but also compelling.

Q: Is there a danger in AI?

Toine Rodenburg: It’s true that there are risks, but I believe they can be managed. Although prominent AI pioneers, ranging from Elon Musk to pink-slipped Google AI ethicists, have urged a moratorium on further advances in AI research, it’s clear that the logic of these advances will continue to carry us forward. We don’t know the destination, but we also know we can’t unknow what we have discovered, or what AI has learned. No one can turn back the clock on AI, but we can make it a priority to understand its abilities, and how these self-endowed talents are likely to evolve.

Q: What does that mean in real-world situations?

Toine Rodenburg: AI is a transformational technology, so in some sense most of us will need to transform the way we currently do things. College professors will need to find ways to discover AI cheating among students. Economists will need to imagine new ways to ensure social stability when the efficiencies of AI wipe out whole industries and millions of jobs. Banking and investment professionals will need to devise ways to identify whether a trader in equities or cryptocurrencies is an AI program, and to create guardrails that will protect the financial system against the potential for AI manipulation.
Political leaders will need to understand the dangers of tying AI into the military decision-making process — and the new threats posed by any adversary that is linking its own military and weaponry to AI command-and-control. They will also need to prepare for the very real probability that AI will be harnessed by bad actors, whether hackers demanding ransoms or unhinged individuals using AI to create deadly pathogens, disrupt energy infrastructure or throw elections.
Above all, the creators of AI will need to try to keep pace with the internal processes by which AI is teaching itself. Several top AI scientists have revealed that, even now, they are not quite sure how AI is solving certain types of problems. Its neural nets are becoming more opaque as AI accelerates into new planes of intelligence. Its thought process will only become harder to understand as it learns more — and understands more.