Article by Philippe Beaudoin, PhD

Why Research is Customer Centric

Phil Beaudoin All Hands Speech

21 12 2018

Last week, during Element AI’s annual gathering, Senior Vice President of the Research Group, and Co-Founder Philippe Beaudoin, delivered a powerful speech about how research is essential to progress and how AI can help build a better future. Get inspired by how research can touch the individual by reading the transcript below.

Who here has seen the picture below? It was taken by the Spaceship Voyager 1 in 1990, from 6.4 billion kilometers away from Earth. It's called the pale blue dot, in the honor of that little blue pixel you see in the center of a ray of light. That pixel is planet earth. It's all of us packed in a single pixel. It inspired astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who wrote what is probably one of the most touching texts in the history of science. Let me read an excerpt…

The Pale Blue Dot

"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves." -Carl Sagan

Let me simplify this. The pale blue dot is completely indifferent to our trajectory. We're facing an array of global challenges and we have to fix them ourselves. We have to fix things together, and we have to fix them robustly. And we won't be successful if we wait for the singularity to emerge and save us all—and we won't prevail if we sit back and hope for someone else to fix things for us.

No, we can only fix this if we roll up our sleeves and find a way to work together; to collectively understand what is broken. We must go back to the basics; to the tools we have for probing reality and understanding what's broken. We must start with science.

We need to use science to write stories of hope and wonder. Beautiful stories that get people to regroup, no matter where they come from; no matter what they look like; no matter what they believe in.

And we can do this. We have the tools. These capabilities are not a hundred years out; they are available today.

That's why we do research, and that's why our research is meant not to serve our own needs, but those of a diverse ecosystem of customers. Customers come to us with a vast array of problems—with many of points of view. This diversity is what allows us to tackle the world's challenges, at scale, and in a robust way.

At Element AI, we do this by taking the customer with us on a delightful journey. And we all know that the best journeys are filled with promises of wonder. That's what research does. We shape the future stops on this journey; those that are not yet on the map, but inspire our customers to dream.

We want these dreams to be believable; we don't deal in snake oil. So, we have to figure out how to push the field forward today, in a way that matters. Some people bet everything on Artificial General Intelligence—but we're known for something else. We're known for our pragmatic approach to research. We tackle hard problems that unlock doors that matter now.

So, what's that believable and wonder-filled journey that AI promises? Here's my take on it...

Since forever, we humans have developed tools to help us accomplish increasingly harder tasks in more efficient ways. In the last hundred years or so, we've built machines that automated tasks which previously required the labor of hundreds of humans.

This sounds great. But there's a catch. Our approach to automation was crude. We built machines that were only able to repeat the same motion again, and again, and again. As a result, we've had to reshape our environment, and even our planet, to conform to the limitations of these machines.

We've normalized our crops and planted them in nice straight rows, even though this is not how nature thrives, so that our harvesters could process them. Why? Because these harvesters are crude automated machines.

We've built factories that repeatedly pump out the same objects again and again—even if customizing those objects might yield a tool that is better suited to the needs of its downstream user. Why? Because our robots are crude automated machines.

Even in the software world, we've learned to filter, sort and organize our information ahead of time in order to make it useful. Why? Because our software systems tend to be crude automated machines.

Because of this, we've learned that efficiency meant that we had to build a large volume of the same thing. We didn’t do this because dealing in volume was necessarily the best way to build what we needed to fix the world's problems—but because pumping out more and more of the same thing is the only way to make our crude automated machines efficient.

But now AI allows us to approach our challenges differently. Our automation doesn't have to be crude anymore. Our solutions don't have to be rigidly scripted. We can gather data about how the world works and build a system that respects the environment in which it operates. In other words...

AI allows us to embrace the complexity in which the world thrives.

We all trust that AI can do this today, and we're comfortable in drawing this picture for our customers. But we also know that there is no "Universal AI Pill". We have to keep working to discover all the ingredients we need to build a diverse array of AI systems and solutions.

That's why we do research; that's why we don't confine it to a single lab, but do it collaboratively—throughout Element AI. Research may not be visible at any single point on the customer journey, yet it takes place everywhere. It's the substrate that allows this journey to exist. It's the reason we gain the trust of our customers. It's why we all believe in this company.

So let's all work together to unlock this wonderful future, where AI allows us to respect our environment. Let's make sure that the ever growing diversity of customers understand how beautiful a future with AI might look like. Today, we're bringing larger corporations and our AI-for-Good partners on that wonder-filled journey, but as Element AI evolves, we'll be able to offer AI products and solutions to a broader group of dreamers—all the way down to every single person who wants to change the world.

Because, AI also allows us to embrace the diversity in which the world thrives.