TEDxToronto 2019: Joseph Palermo, Engineer at Dessa

Joseph is a machine learning engineer at artificial intelligence start-up Dessa based in Toronto. He was part of the team that produced what many consider to be the most impressive “deepfake” to date – a computer-generated voice that sounds like Joe Rogan, the popular American podcast host.

(To see Joseph live on the TEDxToronto stage on October 26th, purchase your tickets here.)

What was your first “million-dollar idea”?
The first one that really panned out was the project that I worked on which got me here. Apart from that, the idea of creating a fully autonomous DJ was one I had earlier. I’ve never actually worked on that though.

What’s the wildest idea you had to sell somebody on? How did you do it?
The technological singularity—the idea that civilization will be radically transformed by the creation of smarter than human artificial intelligence. I just realized that the only way I tend to “sell” is with arguments as I’m a very analytical person.

Name a big idea in your lifetime that you can’t believe never took off?
Soylent.

Name one thing, as a society, we aren’t spending enough time thinking about? What would be a good first step?
The possibility of imminent nuclear war triggered either on purpose or merely by accident. Making it an election issue such that it is at least talked about by politicians.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day-to-day work? How do you take it on?
Keeping my team motivated even when our work drags on. This is a new challenge for me and I haven’t quite figured it out. I think that looking at your work from a different point of view can provide motivation. Sometimes we get too zoomed in and forget the big picture—and sometimes we forget the interesting details when we get too zoomed out.

Where do you look for inspiration?
Major science and engineering projects like Apollo 11. Also, from people who endured tremendous hardships, such as slavery or imprisonment, and came out stronger as a result. I’m also generally inspired by the stoic philosophers such as Seneca.

If you could achieve one goal in the next 18 months what would it be? And why?
To master the 100 most important ideas in modern machine learning. My long-term goal is to advance civilization through technology—in particular, through artificial intelligence. By mastering the most important ideas in my field I will create a stronger basis from which to have an impact.

(To see Joseph live on the TEDxToronto stage on October 26th, purchase your tickets here.)

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