NASA/JPL Tech-Incubation CEO Talks Artificial Intelligence, Part II

This is the second installment of a two-part Q&A series on artificial intelligence (AI) with AJ Abdallat. It covers AI’s potential significance to computing; how AI affects jobs; the employee specializations needed to fuel AI; big data; and cultural challenges in the enterprise. Be sure to check out Part 1 as well.

AJ Abdallat is a serial entrepreneur who, from 1998 to 2011, worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) and Caltech on a series of tech incubation startups. The goal was to commercialize NASA technologies, many of which were artificial intelligence-related.

In 2014, Abdallat co-founded and became CEO of Beyond Limits, a startup that secured licenses to NASA AI technologies for use in commercial applications. Beyond Limits currently holds exclusive licenses to 42 blocks of sophisticated intellectual property developed through NASA R&D investment, a $150 million AI technology head start under the aegis of Caltech’s Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships program. Abdallat’s company is a leader in cognitive technology, which goes beyond conventional AI, binding deep learning and machine learning tools with symbolic AIs to emulate human intuition.

We interviewed Abdallat while researching the story, “AI Delivering on the Business Analytics Promise.” With AI poised to potentially revolutionize business, Abdallat’s career, which blends AI science and commercialization of the technology, makes his insights fascinating. How does the advent of AI as used by enterprises compare to earlier significant computing milestones like networking, the internet, or cloud computing?

Abdallat: Part of me wants to quash as much artificial intelligence speculation as possible. The hyperbole. But frankly, I think AI is potentially more transformative than the other things you mentioned, which are just infrastructure. AI is starting to help us pose the questions that we ultimately want to answer. What’s unique about AI is that it’s an introspective exercise. Every new success for AI is giving us some insight about how we work.


AJ Abdallat is co-founder and CEO, Beyond Limits, an artificial intelligence firm. He’s an engineer and entrepreneur.

As we integrate AI, the trend may not be that transformative initially. Improvements will likely be focused on doing it faster, bigger with lower downtime and more efficiency. But what comes next is thinking about all the humans involved in that process, and what they touch and how they work. I think once AI starts to integrate with that activity, and act at that level within the enterprise, this will truly change how we think about what a business is meant to do. I’m a little biased in this, but you might go so far as to say we are entering the era of the cognitive corporation, where man and machine at all levels of the enterprise will operate in a synergistic fashion to solve problems, each learning from the other.

If you think about most business processes and most problems that humans find interesting to solve, they are heterogeneous. They move through a pipeline of different specialists that look at separate pieces or provide specific oversight to balance specialized objectives. If I can couple my engineering and sales activities at the enterprise level, and use AI to mediate the trade-offs of both of those objectives, and I have these people processes synchronized with machine processes, it gives me the ability to learn how these two potentially juxtaposed business ends are coupled, where they’re divergent, and what kind of switches I can flick or knobs I can turn to make the net positive of these two forces all the greater. Is artificial intelligence intended to replace humans or help them do their jobs?

Abdallat: In some places, as with any kind of automation, you will see some jobs go away. But the labor that was there before finds a new role working with AI, and I think those new roles, especially at the level of knowledge work, will be very interesting.

As good as artificial intelligence systems are, they’re not going to set our objectives. They can move toward them, and think outside the box, which is one of things that we work hard to do at Beyond Limits. But being able to deal with the nuances of problems is still something that humans excel at. So, finding the things that are worth teaching to AI, to learn and to figure out, that’ll still always be a job in the hands of humans. I imagine that’s also when it gets kind of cyclical. I’m going to learn something, the machine’s going to discover a new pattern, we’ll optimize an approach that I didn’t think could be optimized to such a degree. That’s going to give me new questions, which makes me give it new training data, and the process continues like that. What types of software engineers are now or soon will be in demand to support AI, machine learning and this new industry?

Abdallat: One of the things we’re starting to see is a change in job definition. You probably hear about data scientists and machine learning scientists. What we’re going to see more of is taking that science and flipping it with engineer. There’s a ton of stuff in the laboratory that works and is great. And scientists can write papers and come up with nice coefficients for polynomials that solve problems. But at the end of the day, there’s an infrastructure that makes all this work. So, we will probably begin to see new job titles emerge, like data engineer. A data engineer is maybe the bridge between the work that the data scientist does and the infrastructure in which his data lives. He or she is much more of a software engineer but has some knowledge of the data science workflow and algorithms germane to data and AI work.

Data engineers are becoming more important, and we’re finding they fit somewhere between IT and the business. I think that’s important. It’s the same with machine learning people. For example, the actuary of the future will simply be a data scientist who works in insurance. Systems analysts will gradually become systems data scientists. Of course, to make all this stuff work securely, we’ll probably see a ballooning of the specialized security people to support the work that goes into the systems engineering. Unfortunately, the world is more adversarial than we would like. Does AI present a cultural challenge to enterprises?

Abdallat: Earlier big data solutions and the fact that AI looks promising for big data have paved the way. AI asks for similar machineries, although it can be used in smaller footprints when available. Culturally, some IT organizations are more progressive than others. Some like to play with new toys and would be stoked to get this down, assuming they have the budget, and AI may be enough to motivate them to allocate budget.

In other cases, there may be entrenched opposition to change. But it’s such an exciting field that whenever you start talking about artificial intelligence, you’re going to get buy-in. Some healthy skepticism is a good thing too. You can try to channel it into constructive ways of alleviating the concerns that people bring up, and assess whether they’re just nay-saying the next new thing or they’re aware of a valid institutional or physical barrier to success.