Why AI Needs A Broader, More Realistic Approach

If you look at companies like Uber or Didi [China’s ride-sharing service] or Apple and Google, they are aware of what is going on with their consumers more or less in real time. For instance, Didi knows every meter of every car ride done by every consumer in real time. It’s the same with Uber and in China, even in physical retail as I mentioned earlier, Alibaba is showing that real-time connection to customers and integration of physical and digital experiences can be done very well.

But in the traditional world, in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry or in banking, telecom or retail, where customer contact is necessary, businesses are quite disconnected from what the true end-user is doing. It is not real time. It is not large-scale. Typically, CPG companies still analyze data that is several months old. Some CPG companies still get DVDs from behavioral aggregators three months later.

I think an awareness of that [lag]is building in businesses. Many of my friends who are CEOs of large companies in the CPG world, in banking, pharmaceuticals and telecom, are trying to now embrace new technology platforms that bring these next generation technologies to life. But beyond embracing technology, and deploying a few next-generation applications, my sense is, the traditional companies really need to think of themselves as technology companies.

My wife Vandana started and built up the Infosys Foundation in the U.S., and her main passion is computer science education. [She left the foundation in 2017.] She found this amazing statistic that in the dark ages some 6% of the world’s population could read and write, but if you think about computing as the new literacy, today some half a percent of the world’s population can program a computer.

We are finally approaching 90% literacy in the world, and of course we are not all writers or poets or journalists, but we all know how to write and to read, and it has to be the same way with computing and digital technologies, and especially now with AI, which is as big a shift for us as computing itself.

So businesses need to reorient themselves from “I am an X company,” to “I am a technology company that happens to be in X.” Because if we don’t, we may be vulnerable to a tech company that better sees and executes and scales on that X, as we have already seen in many industries. The iPhone wasn’t so much as a phone, as it is a computer in the shape of a phone.

The Apple Watch isn’t a watch, but a computer, a smart computing service, in the shape of a watch. The Tesla is not so much an electric car, but rather a computer, an intelligent, connected, computing service, in the shape of a car. So if you are simply making your car an electric one, this is not enough.

“The iPhone isn’t so much a phone as it is a computer in the shape of a phone.”

Too often companies don’t transform, and they become irrelevant. They may not die immediately. Indeed large, successful, complex structures often outlive us humans, and die long slow deaths, but they lose their relevance to the new very quickly.

Transformations are difficult. One has to let go of the past, of what we have known, and embrace something completely new, alien to us. As my friend and teacher [renowned computer scientist]Alan Kay said, “We only make progress by going differently than we believe.” And of course we have to do this as individuals as well. We have to continually learn and renew our skills, our perspectives on the world.

Knowledge@Wharton: How should companies measure the return on investment (ROI) in AI? Should they think about these investments in the same way as other IT investments or is there a difference?

Sikka: First of all, it is good that we are applying AI to things where we already know the ROI. I was talking to a friend recently, and he said, “In this particular part of my business, I have 50,000 people. I could do this work with one-fourth the people, at even better efficiency.” In such a situation, the ROI is clear. In financial services, one area that has become exciting is active trading of asset management.

People have started applying AI here. One hedge fund wrote about the remarkable results it got by applying AI. A start-up in China does the entire management of investments through AI. There are no people involved and the company delivers breakthrough results.

So, that’s one way. Applying AI to areas where the ROI is clear, where we know how much better the process can become, how much cheaper, how much faster, how much better throughput, how much more accurate, and so on. But again this is all based on the known, the past. We have to think beyond that, more broadly than that.

We have to think about AI as becoming an augmentation for every one of our decisions, every one of the questions that we ask, and have that fed by data and analyzed in real time. Instead of doing generalizations or approximations, we must insist on AI amplifying all of our decisions. We must bring AI to areas where we don’t yet have ROIs clearly identified or clearly understood. We must build ROIs on the fly.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does investment in AI in the U.S. compare with China and other parts of the world? What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. and Chinese approaches to AI development?

Sikka: I’m very impressed by how China is approaching this. It is a national priority for the country. The government is very serious about broad-based AI development, skill development and building AI applications. They have defined clear goals in terms of the size of the economy, the number of people, and the leadership position. They actively recruit [AI experts]. The big Chinese technology companies are [attracting]U.S.-based, Chinese-origin scientists, researchers and experts who are moving back there.

In many ways, they are the leaders already in building applications of AI technology, and are doing leading work in technology as well. When you think about AI technology or research, the U.S. and many European universities and countries are still ahead. But in terms of large-scale applications of AI, I would argue that China is already ahead of everybody else in the world.

The sophistication of their applications, the scale, the complex conditions in which they apply these, is simply extraordinary. Another dimension of that is the adoption. The adoption of AI technology and modern technology in China, especially in rural areas, is staggering.

Knowledge@Wharton: Could you give a couple of examples of what impressed you most?

Sikka: Look at the payments space — at Alipay, WeChat Pay or other forms of payments from companies like Ping An Insurance, as well as Alibaba and Tencent. It’s amazing. Shops in rural China don’t take cash. They don’t take credit cards. They only do payments on WeChat Pay or on Alipay or others like that. You don’t see this anywhere else in the world at nearly the same scale.

Bike rentals are another example. In the past year, there has been an extraordinary development in China around bicycles. When you walk into a Chinese city, you see tens of thousands of bicycles across the landscape — yellow ones, orange ones, blue ones. When you look at these bicycles, you think, “This is a smart bicycle.” It is another example of an intelligent, connected computing service in the shape of a bicycle.

You just have to wave your phone at it with your Baidu account or your Alibaba account or something like that and you can ride the bike. It has GPS. It is fully connected. It has all kinds of sensors inside it. When you get to your destination, you can leave the bike there and carry on with whatever you need to do. Already in the last nine months, this has had a huge impact on traffic.

“The adoption of AI technology and modern technology in China, especially in rural areas, is staggering.”

If you walk into any of Alibaba’s Hema supermarkets in Beijing and Shanghai, I think they have around 20 of these already, teeming with people, they are far ahead of any retail experiences we see today in the US, including at Whole Foods. The entire store is integrated into mobile experiences, so you can wave your phone at any product on the shelf and get a complete online experience.

There is no checkout, the whole experience is on mobile and automated, although there are lots of folks there to help customers. The store is also a warehouse, in fact it serves some 70% of demand from local online customers, and fulfills that demand in less than an hour.

My friend ordered a live fish from the store for dinner and it, that particular fish that he had picked on his phone, was delivered 39 minutes later. Tencent has now invested in a supermarket company. And JD has its own stores. So this is rapidly evolving. It would be wonderful to see convenience like this in every supermarket around the world in the next few years.

A more recent example is battery chargers. All across China, there are little kiosks with chargers inside. You can open the kiosk by waving your phone at it, pick up a charger, charge your phone for a couple of hours, and then drop it off at another kiosk wherever you are. What I find impressive is not that somebody came up with the idea of sharing based on connected phone chargers, but how rapidly the idea has been adopted in the country and how quickly the landscape has adapted itself to assimilate this new idea.

The rate at which the generation [of ideas]happens, gets diffused into the society, matures and becomes a part of the fabric is astounding. I don’t think people outside of China appreciate the magnitude of what is going on.

When you walk around Shenzhen, you can see the incredible advances in manufacturing, electronic device manufacturing, drones and things like that. I was there a few weeks ago. I saw a drone that is smaller than the tip of your finger. At the same time, I saw a demo of a swarm of a thousand or so drones which can carry massive loads collectively. So it is quite impressive how broadly the advance of AI is being embraced in China.

“The act of innovating is the act of seeing something that is not there.”

At the other end of the spectrum, I would say that in Europe, especially in Germany, the government is much more rigorous and thoughtful about the implications of these technologies. From a broader, regulatory and governmental perspective, they seem to be doing a wonderful job.

Henning Kagermann, who used to be my boss at SAP for many years, recently shared with me a report from the ethics commission on automated and connected driving. The thoughtfulness and the rigor with which they are thinking about this is worth emulating. Many countries, especially the U.S., will be well served to embrace those ideas.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does the approach of companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon towards AI differ from that of Chinese companies like Alibaba, Baidu, or Tencent?

Sikka: I think there is a lot of similarity, and the similarities outweigh the differences. And of course, they’re all connected with each other. Tencent and Baidu both have advanced labs in Silicon Valley. And so does Alibaba. JD, which is a large e-commerce company in China, recently announced a partnership around AI with Stanford. There’s a lot of sharing and also competitive aspects within these companies.

There are some differences. The U.S. companies are interested in certain U.S.-specific or more international aspects of things. The Chinese companies focus a lot on the domestic market within China. In many ways, the Chinese market offers challenges and circumstances that are even more sophisticated than the ones in the U.S. But I wouldn’t say that there is anything particularly different between these companies.

If you look at Amazon and Microsoft and Google, their advances, when it comes to bringing their platforms to the enterprise, are further ahead than the Chinese companies. Alibaba and Tencent have both announced ambitions to bring their platform to the enterprise. I would say that in this regard, the U.S. companies are further ahead. But otherwise, they are all doing extraordinary work. The bigger issue in my mind is the gap between all of them and the rest of the companies.

Knowledge@Wharton: Where does India stand in all of this? India has quite a lot of strengths in the IT area, and because of demonetization there has been a strong push towards digitization. Do you see India playing any significant role here?

Sikka: India is at a critical juncture, a unique juncture. If you look at it from the perspective of the big U.S. companies or the big Chinese companies, India is by far their largest market. We have a massive population and a relatively large amount of wealth.

So, there is a lot of interest in all these companies, and consequently their countries, towards India and developing the market there. If that happens, then of course the companies will benefit. But it’s also a loss of opportunity for India to do its own development through educating its workforce on these areas.

One of the largest populations that could be affected by the impact of AI in the near-term is going to be in India. The impact of automation in the IT services world, or broadly in the services world, will be huge from an employment perspective. If you look at the growth that is happening everywhere, especially in India, some people call it “jobless growth.” It’s not jobless. It’s that companies grow their revenues disproportionately compared to the growth in the number of employees.

“Finding the problem, identifying the innovation — that will be the human frontier.”

There is a gap that is emerging in the employment world. Unless we fix the education problem it’s going to have a huge impact on the workforce. Some of this is already happening. One of the things I used to find astounding in Bangalore was that a lot of people with engineering degrees do freelance jobs like driving Uber and Ola cabs. And yet we have tremendous potential.

The value of education is central to us in India, and we have a large, young, generation of highly inspired youngsters ready to embrace and shape the future, who are increasingly entrepreneurial in their outlook. So we have to build on foundations like the “India stack,” we have to build our own technological strengths, from research and core technology to applications and services. And a redoubling of the focus on education, on training massive numbers of people on technologies of the future, is absolutely critical.

So, in India, we are at this critical juncture, where on one hand there is a massive opportunity to show a great way forward, and help AI be a great amplifier for our creativity, imagination, productivity, indeed for our humanity. On the other hand, if we don’t do these things, we could be victims of these disruptions.

Knowledge@Wharton: How should countries reform their education programs to prepare young people for a future shift by AI?

Sikka: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has talked about this a lot. He is passionate about this idea of job creators, not just job seekers, and about a broad culture of entrepreneurship.

I’m an optimist. I’m an entrepreneur. I like to see the opportunity in what we have, even though there are some serious issues when it comes to the future of the workforce. My own sense is that in the time of AI, the right way forward for us is to become more evolved, more enlightened, more aware, more educated, and to unleash our imagination, to unleash our creativity.

John McCarthy was a great teacher in my life. He used to say that articulating a problem is half its solution. I believe that in our lifetime, certainly in our children’s lifetime, we will see AI technology advance to the point where any task, any activity, any job, any work that can be precisely formulated and precisely articulated, will be done automatically, far better than we can do with our senses and our muscles. However, articulating the problem, finding the problem, identifying the innovation — that will be the human frontier. It is the act of seeing something that is not there. The act of exercising our creativity. And then, using AI to become a great amplifier, to help us achieve our imagination, our vision. I think that is the great calling of our time. That is my great calling.

Five or six hundred million years ago, there was this unusual event that happened geologically. It was called the Cambrian explosion. It was the greatest creation of life in the history of our planet. Before that, the Earth was basically covered by water. Land had started to emerge, and oxygen had started to emerge. Life, as it existed at that point, was very primitive.

People wondered, “How did the Cambrian explosion happen? How did all these different life forms show up in a relatively small period of time?” What happened was that the availability of oxygen, the availability of land, and the availability of light as a provider of life, as a provider of living, created a situation which formed all these species that had the ability to see.

They all came out of the dark, out of the water, onto the land, into the air, where opportunities were much more plentiful, where they could all grow, they could all thrive. People wonder, “What were they looking for?” It turns out they were looking for light. The Cambrian explosion was about all these species looking for light.

When I think about the future, about the time in front of us, I see another Cambrian explosion. The act of innovating is the act of seeing something that is not there. Our eyes are programmed by nature to see what is there. We are not programmed to see what is not there. But when you think about innovation, when you think about making something new, everything that has ever been innovated was somebody seeing something that was not there.

I think the act of seeing something that is not there is in all of us. We can all be trained to see what is not there. It is not only a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg or a Thomas Edison or an Albert Einstein who can see something that is not there. I think we can all see some things that are not there. To Vandana’s statistic, we should strive to see a billion entrepreneurs out there. A billion-plus computer literate people who can work with, even build, systems that use AI techniques, and who can switch their perspective from making a living to making a life.

When I was at Infosys, we trained 150,000 people on design thinking for this reason: To get people to become innovators. In our lifetime, all the mechanical, mechanizable, repeatable things are going to be done way better by machines. Therefore, the great frontier for us will be to innovate, to find things that are not there. I think that will be a new kind of Cambrian explosion. If we don’t do that, humanity will probably end.

Paul MacCready, one of my heroes and a pioneer in aerospace engineering, once said that if we don’t become creative, a silicon life form will likely succeed us. I believe that it is in us to refer back to our spirituality, to refer back to our creativity, our imagination, and to have AI amplify that.

I think this is what Marvin [Minsky] and John [McCarthy] were after and it behooves us to transcend the technology. And we can do that. It is going to be tough. It is going to require a lot of work. But it can be done. As I look at the future, I am personally extremely excited about doing something in that area, something that fundamentally improves the world.

The following post was republished with permission from Value Walk.