If you’ve ever witnessed a human heart stopped and removed, repaired, and reinserted into the body, let me tell you it is a fearsome thing to behold. Every second counts, each decision, every surgical movement, the precise balance of blood flow and anesthetic, is orchestrated in something akin to musical symphony. But what really grabbed my attention was when one of the physicians introduced me to a new computer technology called an “expert system.”
This was 1995, when, as co-founder of a healthcare information system’s startup, I had my first exposure to AI watching open-heart surgery at the Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center. The system used historical data from actual surgical procedures, along with information on the patient’s health and real-time vital signs, to infer (to reason) the best techniques for the doctors to use in this complicated, lifesaving surgery. AI did not tell the doctors what to do but guided them to optimal choices that produced measurably better patient outcomes.
Though primitive compared to AI solutions today, the application stunned me. I saw that computers were not just about automating manufacturing or increasing business productivity. I saw a machine not just tabulate data. I saw a ‘thinking machine’ extract insights from data and predict the future. The AI connected the dots forward. The real value of computers would be to form data into knowledge that predicted, even shaped, the future. I had been fascinated as a teenager by Nostradamus, the French astrologer who is best known for his book Les Prophéties, a collection of 942 poetic quatrains allegedly predicting future events. AI was the continuation of Nostradamus’s prophecies in another form.
In 1996 I discovered Open Agent Architecture (OAA), being developed at the SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center as part of an effort to develop intelligent digital personal assistants. OAA was using sophisticated Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning (ML) techniques to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of agent-based internet services. In my mind, OAA evolved the idea of expert systems.
I agreed to an R&D partnership with SRI. The mobile wave was building, and I envisaged OAA on every mobile device, activating a sea of mobile applications. I was a decade too early (there’s a lesson in that). OAA went on to become the basis of Siri, releasing as an app for iOS in February 2010, and acquired by Apple two months later.
I joined Microsoft Corporation in 1997 to lead early work on the confluence of AI and mobile. I later headed the knowledge management business, immersing myself in data and ontological science, and authoring my first book, Collective Knowledge, on the topic. After joining the Microsoft M&A team in 2005, I began to explore the potential inherent in data-driven innovation and investment. That is another story …
One way or another, all of these experiences built on my interest in AI.
AI, which is capable of analyzing much more data than humans and of making better, faster decisions, will be at the center of almost any significant solution to the many problems facing our planet, particularly climate change. Long on promise, AI is finally coming to maturity. It has the capacity to search for and discover knowledge and to make well-founded predictions about the complex, multidimensional problems that affect our existence. It is the only approach that can grapple with issues as vast as the climate, healthcare crises, and whatever other threats humanity may create, or Mother Nature may throw at us.