Kevin Pereira, MD of AI consulting firm Blu Artificial Intelligence talks us through why artificial intelligence is something to be embraced instead of feared.

With technology leaders such as Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk saying we might be “summoning the demon” by developing artificial intelligence, it’s unsurprising that so many approach the subject with fear and trepidation. After all, he’s not the only big name expressing concern in the media about the risks posed by AI. Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak and Microsoft Founder Bill Gates have both added to the conversation. In this two-part feature, we talk with Kevin Pereira of AI consulting firm Blu Artificial Intelligence, to learn more about where AI is at now and how he sees its impact on our society as it begins to answer the business, logistical and social questions we ask of it.

Kevin Pereira joined Blu Artificial Intelligence, a Hong Kong-based consulting firm specialising in AI, in December 2016 as Managing Director, Financial Services. They specialise in advising companies on how they can best overlay and implement AI on top of their existing business strategies and also assist in the resulting knowledge transfer and organisational change. “I think that, in the future, combining AI technology with business model innovation will be key and that’s what we’re trying to help our clients with at Blu”, explains Kevin. “I’ve always been fascinated with business model innovation, and with the emergence of AI, we’re certainly going to see a lot of old business models change.”

Blu Artificial Intelligence

Prior to joining Blu in December 2016, Kevin, an alumnus of Wharton and an INSEAD MBA, had carved up a successful finance career at both Citigroup Private Bank in New York and BNY Mellon Asset Management in Hong Kong. It was during an INSEAD conference in 2016 that he first met Blu AI’s founder, Fabrice Fischer, formerly CFO of one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence companies, Sentient Technologies, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Part of the reason for my career transition at that time was that AI was still pretty white-page in terms of what’s going on in the space. For anyone that’s thinking about AI as a career, I think you’ve got to be, at least for now, a little comfortable with ambiguity,” says Kevin. “When I started with Blu, I actually had no background in coding or engineering, so when the founder offered me this role, I questioned it. But I think his point was that AI innovation is actually a process. It’s about figuring out what the business use case is, what the technology is, and then how to implement it”.

According to a report led by KPMG, the industry attracted USD 12 billion of VC investment in 2017, doubling that of the year before, in a clear indication of what’s to come. And, while it may seem like an intimidating phenomenon is on the horizon, AI is actually already in use every day, found everywhere from the various chatbots you come across to Netflix’s use of highly accurate predictive technology for movie/tv show recommendations. “I think a lot of the fear that people have is very much fuelled by the media when really it all comes down to how people use the technology”, says Kevin. “Take drones for example. On the one hand, companies like Amazon can use drones for delivery, resulting in us all getting our goods faster. On the other, there’s a possibility of terrorists also attaching bombs to drones. It’s a question of use case, and the key point is that the use case is often human determined. At the end of the day, AI is just a tool”.

There are a lot of myths circulating the internet about the future of AI and what it will mean for humanity – most AI researchers at the 2015 Puerto Rico Conference guessed that human-level AI will likely happen before 2060. Nevertheless, Kevin insists that we shouldn’t be unduly worried. “It’s funny, whenever people ask me about what the future of AI means for us, I think they’re expecting me to say that it’s going to immediately change the world. While a lot of things are going to change, it’s going to be incremental. Short-term, AI is going to be really good at doing the basic repetitive tasks very well. However, the ethical concerns that many have been raised are legitimate and therefore need to be considered as AI develops.”

AI has already become a big part of making businesses run more efficiently, and one of the main ways that it is doing this is through automation. Whether you’re an analyst at a bank or the CEO of a small business, a lot of the work, particularly your admin, is labour intensive. Today, thanks to cloud computing and advances in machine learning, there’s a truly impressive range of virtual AI-driven assistants at our fingertips. Some examples include the New York startup for all your scheduling needs, the sales enablement tool Conversica to handle all your many emails, and the cloud-based proofreading software Grammarly. “Automation in AI essentially removes the basic and tedious stuff out of your way. It’s effectively going to free you up to do what you’re good at”, says Kevin.

A good example of how AI may free you up from the mundane is found in autonomous cars. Instead of frittering away your precious time by spending an hour behind the wheel every day on your daily commute, you could be catching up on emails or getting ahead of deadlines whilst sat in the comfort of your own autonomous vehicle. Another industry that’s going to be augmented by AI is the medical field. “Right now, the diagnosis process is something where, in theory, the doctor has all their past patients in their head. But something like IBM Watson has not only data pertaining to that particular doctor’s patient but also the myriad of other data from other patients that is in Watson”, begins Kevin. “Let’s say you break your arm tomorrow. Instead of queuing for hours to get a doctor to diagnose you, you could theoretically take an x-ray of your arm and put it into Watson. In no time it could figure out A: what’s wrong with you, B: what your treatment options are, and C: what the past success rate of each treatment option is.”

For all its possibilities, however, there is one area in which AI has major limits, and that’s any situation involving human-to-human interaction: “Once you’ve been diagnosed with a broken arm, it’s going to take a nurse to take your arm, put it in a cast, and reassure you that everything is going to be O.K. That part is still, in my view, a human trait that will be difficult to be replicated or replaced. I don’t think that any job, skill, or career involving human-to-human interaction is going to be as affected as much as those which are highly structured and contain repetitive tasks.”

Keep an eye out for the second part of our two-part feature with Kevin, in which we discuss the future of AI – most specifically, its possibilities and its limits.