Q&A with media innovator Adaora Udoji

If you want to understand the intersection of digital media, emerging technologies, and education, it’s difficult to think of a better guide than Adaora Udoji. From her decade and a half in broadcast news to her current role as the Director of Corporate Innovation at the RLab in New York City, Adaora’s unique perspective on the way we interact with technology and consume information comes from many years of experience. 

We recently sat down with Adaora to get her thoughts on how AI is changing the way we work, why technological progress is inevitable (and why ahistorical alarmism isn’t helpful), and how a diverse group of people can be brought together to help us responsibly navigate the vast technological changes we’re witnessing every day. 

 

Ricciardi Group: What is the RLab?

Adaora Udoji: The RLab is an economic development initiative created to support economic activity around immersive technologies. We believe we’re the first city-funded effort that’s focused on developing things like the next-generation of user interfaces (such as virtual and augmented reality), and we essentially do that by forming and funding start-ups. We also provide education and training programs and engage with corporations to help them think about how to employ these products to accelerate growth by spreading and encouraging development.

RG: Do you expect to see more public funding for research on emerging technologies and entrepreneurship in the coming years?

Adaora Udoji: It’s critically important. We’re thinking about training and education relative to the next generation of technology – what types of skills will people need? Where will they go to learn them? Right now, generally speaking, you learn about tech literacy in schools or workshops that might exist here and there. But there isn’t really a place for someone who may not be in school or have tremendous resources to learn about what these technologies have to offer. 

RG: What are a few of the practical uses for AI and machine learning (for example, in the healthcare field)?

Adaora Udoji: There are applications that have a far higher rate of being able to detect cancer in medical imaging – they just pick up things that the human eye can’t. The ability of AI applications to spot disease is astonishing. Then there’s precision medicine – AI applications can sift through thousands of treatments that the human brain just couldn’t identify. So AI can come up with novel treatments that wouldn’t occur to the human mind.

RG: What do you have to say to people who are concerned about, say, job displacement as more and more tasks become automated?

Adaora Udoji: Innovation is never going to stop. We talk about these things as if there’s an endpoint, but there isn’t. There are decades and decades of research, and only recently has there been a real increase in trying to productize what AI applications are in the open market. 

Is it clear what jobs will be lost, what jobs will be gained, and what jobs will be expanded? No, it’s not. As with every tech innovation, there are upsides and downsides. It’s not binary – we just don’t know the details. The best we can do is look very critically at this technology and develop it responsibly with some level of transparency. We’ll hopefully be able to influence some of the people who are responsible for pushing this technology to fruition.

RG: What are a few of the biggest misconceptions about the technology you work with?

Adaora Udoji: Even the smartest people in the world who are not in the tech business can be entirely intimidated by this stuff. There’s a lot of poorly designed technology, but there’s an idea that tech creators are smarter than everyone. We’re iterating so quickly that it can be really overwhelming, but people are making this stuff – coming up with new words, new workflows, and new ways of dealing with and manipulating content. Nobody knows all of it – one of the opportunities we have is to try to make it more accessible. 

RG: Why is New York well-positioned to become a global leader in emerging technologies?

Adaora Udoji: New York City is a meta-economy – we have deep experts across many industries and sectors. We also have schools that are graduating a larger number of tech experts every year, such as NYU and Cornell. We’re here to support all of these people in developing shared industry objectives and standards.

It’s profoundly important to have a broad cross-section of people who have access to this tech, are exposed to it, and are involved in developing it. You’re more likely to come out with responsible usage and applications if that’s the case. Ultimately, we’re in the business of educating and engaging people. We’re agnostic as to who you are — whether you’re a fortune 100 company or an individual. The point is to create an access point for a lot of these technologies at a time when we need these resources.

 

There’s one key thing everyone (and I mean everyone) forgets: people make technology. Technology doesn’t make technology. I say that because if people can make it, they can learn it.