Saxena: More Than a Tech Tool, A.I. Power Must Be Used With Society in Mind

[Updated 12/27/18, 9:54 am] Manoj Saxena is bullish on artificial intelligence. As chairman of Austin, TX-based A.I. startup CognitiveScale and managing director of The Entrepreneur Fund, which makes investments in early-stage machine learning companies, Saxena believes A.I. can transform how we work and play—creating opportunities for business.

But he’s also aware that the technology, if not used carefully, could end up hurting society. He’s one of the founding members of AI Global, an initiative with the goal of promoting responsible development and deployment of A.I. technologies.

As part of Xconomy’s series of year-end posts, we asked Saxena (pictured above) to reflect on the latest developments in the A.I. industry, and how he sees things playing out in 2019. Here are some of the highlights of our e-mail exchange:

Xconomy: What trend or event defined your industry in 2018? What are the implications for 2019?

Manoj Saxena: 2018 was the year that A.I. became the frontier for digital business transformation. Before, when business and technology leaders spoke of “digital transformation,” they used to think of mobile or Big Data. In 2018, business leaders started understanding the vast potential of A.I. to create new classes of customer experiences and operational productivity. Their focus then shifted from viewing A.I. as an abstract concept or a game-playing machine like IBM Watson or Google AlphaGO to starting to understand A.I.’s business potential. We call this as A.I. moving from “Literature to Lab to Live.”

X: How are you writing out company plans for what 2019 might bring in terms of whether there’s a stock market correction or the good times keep on rolling?

M.S.: Overall, we believe “there are no bear markets for good companies.” So, at our core, we focus on building and scaling value for clients through our augmented intelligence software. 

At a more granular level, we are building the core tenets of our 2019 plans around a deep understanding of how artificial intelligence-powered software systems will be consumed by both existing and new clients. [Updated.] We then refine it using scenario-planning techniques to adjust our plan for market shifts such as moderate pull back in capital availability and increased pressure on talent and workforce availability. The final result is then a plan that matches expected market opportunity with the capacity we have around product, people, and cash burn.  

X: What are the new technologies that make it harder for you to predict how well your startup (or your startup investment) might remain relevant, for a time long enough to succeed?

M.S.: I think the long-term relevance and success of a startup has a lot less to do with just technology and has everything to do with delivering value profitably in a fast-changing environment. At the end of the day, technology is just a tool and an unrealized potential; it is how one skillfully uses that tool to craft a profitable product or service—while also delighting people—that sustains companies in the long run.

Take Netflix vs Blockbuster, for example; it was not just Internet technology like HTML or Web app servers or low latency content delivery networks that disrupted Blockbuster. It was how Reed Hastings and the Netflix team were able to craft an application, experience, and a profitable business model to deliver movies and video content on consumers’ computers and mobile devices.

We are living in this incredible time of innovation and are seeing this Cambrian explosion in powerful technologies—from cloud to big data to machine learning to AR/VR to blockchain to over-the-horizon tech like quantum computing. Over the next few years and decades, we will see many wonderful innovations as the world continues to go A.I.-powered and entrepreneurs figure out ways to build big businesses around compelling new products, services, and experiences. Uber and Airbnb are good recent examples of a significant new business born out of combining cloud, mobile, social data, machine learning, and other technologies.

X: World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee has proposed the formulation of a “Contract for the Web” to mitigate the impacts of tech companies on individual privacy, national and regional strife, and other domains. He is asking companies and others to help write it, and pledge to honor it. If you were helping to write the “Contract for the Web,” what provisions or principles would you propose? If you are a company leader, would your company honor these principles?

M.S.: I think that contract is even more important now than it was with the Web. So I would call it a Contract for the Age of Intelligent Machines. A.I. is a new emergent power that is way beyond what humanity has organized itself around before. A quote that I have heard is, “there’s nothing artificial about A.I.” It’s inspired by people; it’s created by people, and—most importantly—it impacts people. It is a powerful tool we are only just beginning to understand, and that is a profound responsibility. These A.I. systems are self-learning systems and have accelerated their impact on a substantial portion of the world’s population, with several startling and destructive cases of “rogue A.I.” emerging.

For example, recently, Amazon’s machine-learning specialists uncovered that their new recruiting engine did not like women. The company realized its new system was not rating candidates for software developer jobs and other technical posts in a gender-neutral way. That is because Amazon’s computer models were trained to vet applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period. Most came from men, a reflection of male dominance across the tech industry.

We will, in the pretty near future, hit a moment when it will be impossible to course-correct. It is critical to take a human experience and values-first view with A.I.; therefore, it’s the company’s and regulator’s job to ensure things are responsibly produced and done in a way that starts with human privacy and data rights, and the company’s core values and see if your A.I. is enabling that. Specifically, these contracts (formal and informal) need to ensure that A.I.-powered systems are designed and introduced to cover at least these core characteristics of responsibility:

1. Delivery of positive business and societal outcome and impact.

2. Augmentation and scaling of human intelligence and experience.

3. Cultivation of transparency, accountability, and trust.

Responsible A.I. is an area in which I have been spending a lot of time with businesses and governments, and I plan to accelerate my engagement in the months ahead.

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