An AI expert and entrepreneur finds a lot to like at one of the hottest annual conferences on technology
Column: Piyush Malik
When does a technology concept become buzz worthy? When analysts’ hype cycles, pundits’ predictions and the marketers’ noise rise to a crescendo – almost in unison to become a deafening cacophony.
When do you know if a concept has tremendous market potential? When scores of venture capitalists start putting big investment bets on it at a fast pace.
When do you know a technology is going to cause a revolution? When every other person you meet at a tech entrepreneurship conference is either doing a startup in this space, is ‘pivoting’ or is reskilling to be branded as a developer, researcher, consultant or a business executive in that field.
With so many versatile use cases and powerful real-life examples being showcased at The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE) flagship annual gathering TiE Inflect in the past two days (formerly known as TiEcon), it is hard to imagine an industry that is not being disrupted by Artificial Intelligence (AI) today. With over $2.8 billion invested in AI companies last year, an enormous spike in mergers, acquisitions, and acqui-hiring for astronomical figures is being accepted as the norm. As angel investors and VCs are gleefully accepting pitch meetings for seed or higher funding rounds from AI focused entrepreneurs, the race to rebrand oneself as an AI professional is one that few would like to miss. Science-fiction books and movies have long proposed the idea of a world influenced or dominated by “thinking” machines. Today, artificial intelligence can be found in many of the technologies that you use in your day-to-day life. Whether it is in creating user experience enhancing chatbots or preventing the next cybersecurity data breach, it’s clear that this cutting-edge technology is poised to play an increasingly important role in society. But for many, the question still remains: Will this role be one that replaces humanity or helps make it better? I have previously blogged on the topic of AI and its impact here and more recently here.
Such was the energy level at this recently concluded TiE Inflect2018 conference that when a 70+-year-old billionaire philanthropist and serial entrepreneur Dr. Romesh Wadhwani announced that his 36th venture (and first in the AI space) is poised to do business of more than $500 million next year, he was greeted with cheers and claps from a full house at the opening keynote.
With 220+ speakers in 15 conference tracks of emerging technology topics, a standing-room-only attendance at the AI track was a testament to the wind’s current direction in the Silicon Valley. No wonder the organizers declared the theme of the entire TiE conference to be Imagination to the exponent of AI.
TiE Inflect kicked off with a keynote from Splunk CEO Doug Merritt, who talked about how AI and machine learning is being infused into his company’s products, reminding us that change is a constant that we need to get comfortable with. While in 2010 his company was struggling to process 1 petabyte (1 million GB) of data daily, now they are ingesting 7 petabytes daily to derive actionable insights from machine to machine data and are moving towards the exabyte (1,000 petabytes) per day scale.
Dr. Vishal Sikka (former CEO of Infosys and ex-CTO of SAP) pointed to his old association with AI pioneers and his personal journey in the field dating back to a paper written during his internship and his subsequent Ph.D. thesis a few decades ago. He shared his latest research where he is focusing his energy on three things: AI to rethink business, entrepreneurship at a global scale, and AI to amplify humanity.
There were a number of other impressive talks and panel discussions from prominent thought leaders and corporate speakers, including Oracle President Thomas Kurien, IBM general managers Beth Smith and Inhi Cho Suh. They made the entrepreneur in me see wonderful opportunities that lie ahead in the AI domain from software to hardware to chip design.
While the doomsday predictions of AI’s destructive capabilities and its impact on human jobs may dampen enthusiasm for a few, it was heartening to hear about so many examples of how AI is being put to social and human good. For example, the farming sector faces the daunting task of producing enough food to support the growth in human population. Real-time data analytics and machine learning technology is helping farmers meet this increased demand by making the most of each acre, maximizing crop yields and profits. Likewise in the healthcare and medicine domain, AI has helped with the early detection and treatment of cancer and other deadly diseases. There were so many useful examples cited at the conference that I could perhaps go on forever.
There’s a good chance that AI will do far more good than harm. Even if widespread job disruption does occur, this new revolution, like those before it, will create more jobs than it takes. The benefits of AI-driven technology go beyond making life more convenient for tech-savvy consumers. It also has the ability to improve the quality of life for millions of humans around the globe.
While robots and thinking computers were once considered to be far-fetched technologies from some distant date in the future, recent examples of AI-infused applications have brought the topic out of the realm of academic research theory and into reality. Research in artificial intelligence domain first began in the 1950s. It didn’t take long for debates about the future of a master machine race competing with humans to surface. Over the past few decades, AI research has revealed that machines can indeed surpass humans when it comes to intelligence. However, this superior intellect does not seem to correlate with sentience, which speaks to the heart of “the man vs machine” debate. I am a firm believer in Augmented Intelligence” where man and machine work together synergistically.
AI is the primary driver of ground-breaking tech innovation in the era of Industry 4.0, changing almost everything, much like electricity did over 100 years ago. As Hemant Taneja, a Silicon Valley VC and author of Unscaled puts it, “We are witnessing the birth of the AI century”. Clearly, our lives are being significantly transformed by all of this as the AI revolution is sweeping our business and personal lives. AI infused manufacturing, healthcare & medicine, agriculture, cyber security, video surveillance & security, driverless cars etc. are all poised to impact us in a big way. The question now remains which opportunity will you pick to go after?
Piyush Malik has been an entrepreneur and tech executive in Silicon Valley for over two decades. Apart from being on the board of a few companies, he serves as SVP at an AI/ML startup, SpringML, and has founded and invested in social entrepreneurship ventures after international roles in big tech and management consulting firms. TiE Inflect 2018 was the 11th consecutive annual TiE conference that he has attended, co-chaired or volunteered for.
The views expressed in this column are his own.