Do you remember when IBM’s Watson, their artificial intelligence, actually beat jeopardy? Meet Neil Sahota, one of the key people behind the team at IBM that made that happen. Like all great ideas, Watson was conceived at a bar where Jeopardy happened to be playing on the TV. On today’s podcast, Neil joins John Livesay to dive into the world of artificial intelligence and its many elements, including artificial empathy. Neil talks about how artificial intelligence can actually make us more human. Tune in to this episode to unpack this insight.
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Own The A.I. Revolution With Neil Sahota
Do you remember when IBM Watson’s artificial intelligence beat Jeopardy!? Meet Neil Sahota, one of the key people behind the team at IBM that made that happen. You can only imagine the suspense and the stress they were under if it didn’t work. He also shares what it was like to live in China. He said, “It’s like the Stone Age meets the Space Age.” Find out what he means. Finally, he talks about how artificial intelligence can make us more human and there’s artificial intelligence for empathy. This is an episode you won’t want to miss.
Our guest is Neil Sahota. He is an IBM Master Inventor, United Nations Artificial Intelligence subject matter expert, and a Professor at UC Irvine. He’s got many years of business experience. He works to inspire clients and partners to foster innovation and develop next-generation products and solutions powered by AI. His work spans multiple industries, including legal services, healthcare, life sciences, retail, travel and transportation, energy, automotive basically everything.
He is one of the few people selected for IBM’s Corporate Service Corps leadership program that pairs leaders with NGOs to perform community-driven economic development. He lived in China when he was there. He also partners with entrepreneurs to define their products, establish their markets, and structure their companies. He’s a member of several investment groups like the Tech Coast Angels. He’s also served as a judge in various startup competitions. I’m thrilled to have you. Welcome, Neil.
Thanks for having me on, John. I’m excited to be here.
We didn’t even touch on all the other things you do. You have a book called Own the AI Revolution. There are many things going on, and you’re also a speaker. Tell us a little bit about your own story of origin. You can go back to childhood, school, or wherever you want, that gives us a sense of how it all started. Were you always interested in computers? Did you have a robot friend?
No, not at all. I was a kid from the Bronx that loved playing sports. I live a couple of blocks from Yankee Stadium. We’re playing stickball, basketball, and football. My mom got tired of me always playing sports. She felt like I need to be more well-rounded. She insisted to me to try to learn the piano or the violin. I wasn’t into that. One day, she’s like, “You have to do something else.” We had been walking by a little strip mall area and they were teaching computer classes in there. I told my mom as an eight-year-old kid, “I want to learn computers.” She’s like, “What? Seriously?” I’m like, “Yeah.” She marched me right in and signed me up for classes.
If it’s between that and piano, I understand. I took piano lessons. I like music. There’s a big connection between math and music. It’s quite interesting to see how one little choice like that can make such a difference in how that all transpired. There you are taking computers. You liked it and took to it, but they weren’t talking about artificial intelligence back then, I’m guessing. There’s more coding.
Yeah. I was learning. It was on Apple IIe to date myself here. It’s cool to say that I could write these little lines of code and stuff would happen. You could do a calculation and get some graphics, but you essentially are enabling people to be able to do something with the machine. I thought, “That’s creative because I dig that.” Fast forward a few decades there, I was working with a lot of the C-level execs and they’re like, “Business intelligence was taken off. It’s amazing what computers are telling us.” I’m like, “Computers aren’t telling us anything.” There are cool tools to collect tons of data, slice and dice it, and create nice looking reports but machines don’t tell us anything. Could a machine do that? That’s how I looked down this path going like, “I wonder if there’s a way a machine tells us something. Could a machine find insights?”
You spent this illustrious career over twelve years at IBM dealing with their Watson ecosystem. For those readers who may not know much about that, tell us what that was like from the beginning to twelve years later because things move fast.AI will actually make us more human. Click To Tweet
The thing with Watson started at a bar with all great ideas. There were three IBM Distinguished Engineers. They’re some smart guys. We’re thinking about something cool to do and Jeopardy! happened to be playing on the TV. We’re like, “What if we could create a computer that could play on Jeopardy!?” Most people are like, “How hard could that be?” It’s like playing chess. Jeopardy! will be giving an answer and you have to figure out the question. You think about language. How hard is it to understand people when they talk?
If I say I’m feeling blue because it’s raining cats and dogs, everyone knows what I’m talking about. If you tell a machine that, it’s like, “You’re physically the color blue because small animals are falling from the sky?” That does not compute. These were the hurdles and we figured out how to do this. We had to commit to the Jeopardy! challenge two years in advance. At that point, we didn’t even know if we could do this or not. Chris was like, “Of course, we’ll make it happen.” It’s no secret that it’s 50/50 that Watson would work the night of the Jeopardy! challenge.
Nothing like a little drama in a story.
Everyone got the blackberries out and the recipes all ready to go.
Watson did not start off well. These 6 of the first 7 questions, the execs are a few rows in front, and looking unhappy. Everyone’s like, “I might be in the market for a new job. We have lunch or something.” It’s a testament to how fast AI learns. Watson turned it around. It turned into questions right, applying the strategy, and then it won the whole thing. We’re like, “We did not expect that.”
I’ve read a lot about how it learns fast, even how to bid because it’s not just answering and coming up with the right question for the answer, but also, which thing to bid on and not bid on. It’s fascinating stuff. I’ve worked with quite a few founders in artificial intelligence and trying to work with them on crafting a story around it. For people who aren’t into the weeds of artificial intelligence, there’s this whole thing around structured data and unstructured data, and everybody zones out.
I use the analogy of the tip of the iceberg. What’s above the water is what you can see and that’s what’s structured. This whole premise of how can AI help understand what people are feeling and not just if it’s positive or negative information that you’re trending on social media, but what causes it. My favorite story around this was, you come home and you see your wife crying. You don’t know if it’s tears of joy because she got good news or tears of sadness because something bad happened, or she’s frustrated you left your socks on the floor again. Until we know why someone’s crying, it’s not enough to know if someone’s happy or not happy, especially when you zoom out and look at it from a standpoint of how a company should respond with all this data coming through social media channels. I’d love to have you speak a little bit about how AI has grown past, “Someone’s happy or not,” to “Here’s the reason they’re feeling this way.”
There’s a whole area called artificial empathy in AI. It’s exactly like it sounds like. The machine is trying to figure out the emotional state of a person and dynamically respond to that. People feel emotions. How the world is going to be empathetic?
There are some people that can’t do that.
People are like, “Can a machine do this?” The answer is yes. It doesn’t have to feel it. We can teach it things or clues to look for. It’s areas about psychology, kinesiology or body language, and neurolinguistics are clues. It’s things that we, as people, use subconsciously.
Your eyes go up or not. The whole Neuro-Linguistic Programming, you’re trying to remember something or your face gets flustered and you’re angry. It’s not just the computer responding to what you type in. It’s got cameras and can start to see body cues. Ironically, it’s probably better than a virtual world because, for many people during a pandemic, I can’t read body language like I could in person, but the computers are like, “No problem for us.”
That’s a huge advantage. You’re seeing a lot of people build tools to help people connect better in the virtual environment, as well as communicate better. In addition to empathy, the machine has a way to use neurolinguistics to deconstruct language. You learn, “Neil is an auditory learner and John is a visual learner. Neil cares more about the fun factor of a product while John cares more about the value of the product. This is the best way to engage.”
Even the words to use. “You should use these words with Neil and these words with John to help communicate.” A lot started as marketing and sales staff, people realize, “This is an AI communication coach.” If you want to connect better with your kids or you’re wondering why your wife is angry at you, it can help us do that now and respond back. Rather than like, “What’s wrong with you?” The AI is like, “No, don’t say that.” “I feel like something is wrong here. Did something happen today? Tell me.”
There are many questions around just this. I could spend so much time with you. Let’s do it through the lens of marketing and sales. I’m always a big studier of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. I remember that back in the day, that was completely revolutionary information. Especially speakers, you and I are both keynote speakers. When we get up in front of an audience, we know that some of those people are going to be visually-oriented, so you need to paint a picture. Some of them are going to be kinesthetic and some of them are going to be auditory.
My favorite example of that is when I say the car door slammed. Do you see it, hear it, or feel it? I’m always fascinated by the people who feel the door slamming and yet, those people, you can almost predict that they’re going to have an amazing sound system in their car at home and Sonos speakers or whatever. I remember being in a car with a friend of mine and she was driving us around. I just moved up to Northern California in Marin County. She was driving and taking us someplace she’d been before. She’s like, “This doesn’t feel like the right way. Neil, I lost my mind.” I said, “Are you telling me you’re navigating by your feelings? Where’s the map?”
That was my first introduction to not everyone processes the work the way I do. From a sales perspective and speaking perspective, we need to use language that doesn’t make people shift. You’re like, “That resonates with me now because you said it in visual terms or kinesthetic terms.” “Does it ring a bell? Does that feel like the kind of journey you’d like to go on with us?” All those kinds of things are what a good speaker does. Maybe it’s subconscious. If it’s conscious, it takes it to a whole other level. What do you think about all that? How do you use that in your speaking?
It’s about connections. We sometimes lose sight of that. What we’re trying to do is not just this call or making the sale that’s the ultimate thing. We want to be successful. It’s about building relationships and creating resonance. This is a good way to tap into that. People have told me I’m an engaging dynamic speaker and people charged up in a good way. People are like, “What’s your secret?” I’m like, “I don’t know if I have a secret. It’s just that I think about what makes the most sense for the audience. What are the outcomes and the experience that they need?” I’m not at that stage to hear myself talk. How smart I am, I don’t care about that. I’m there because I want to create value for those people so I have to find a way to try and connect with them. That’s why I’m sure you do the same thing I do, John. Every time you’re asked to give a talk, I’m going, “Who is the audience?” All those types of things.The best way to predict the future is to create it. Click To Tweet
“Let me talk to a couple of people before I get up in front of them.” I can reference that so that there’s some customization to it all. Salespeople do that before they go on a sales call. That preparation pays off. Computers can do way more preparation than we can. What advantage do you think we have over AI from a sales perspective? If they know what language to use and they can do more preparation than we can, what do we have going for us?
Machines can only do what we teach them to do. So far, we have not figured out how to make AI creative or imaginative. How do you paint the right picture? How do you tell the right story? AI helps us make sure we’re using the best possible words but they can’t tell us how to craft the story.
Do you think that AI can be a replacement or a substitute for therapy? If people need empathy, someone listening to them, and they can search their database of diagnosis or whatever, “You’re depressed. You need to eat more. Get outside and exercise.” Is that one of the industries that’s probably at risk of being replaced?
I wouldn’t say replaced or substituted but I’d say augmented or supplemented. There’s a lot of focus on this because there are not enough therapists in the world and sometimes, people need outlets. I’m going to tell you something that might blow your mind, John. In Nairobi, Kenya, there’s a project going on called Loving AI. To all the audience, it’s not what you think right away. The goal of Loving AI is to solve the biggest illness in the world, which is loneliness. Before COVID, about 40% of the world suffer from moderate to severe loneliness and they wanted to give these people an outlet. They wanted to create an AI, whether it’s a chatbot or an avatar, or whatever. They want to teach AI, unconditional love. The thought was, “If we can do this, everybody, no matter what time of day or how afraid you are, would have a safe spot to go to.” A substitute for human relationships with a safe spot to go to, engage, feel like they belong to something, and build their confidence so they can go out and engage people. Here’s the mind-blowing part of this. As they try to do this, how do you teach unconditional love to an AI?
It hard enough to teach them empathy, let alone that next step.
The question is, what’s the difference between unconditional love and love?
I know. I have a family. “I love you if you get these grades or if you do that.”
That’s a good example. There are different kinds of love. There’s a love between two spouses, love between a parent and child, and love with your friends. They went from this grandiose idea, which they’re working on to realizing, “This is way more complicated than we thought. We can’t even quite define love. We have to figure out what love means and what conditional love is.” It turned to this deep exploration of what it means to be human. One of the big things that jazz me about AI is that machines, that AI will make us more human.
It does not just free up our time to do higher-value work or do yoga, or whatever. It’s forcing us to think about things. Because we’ve had to teach these concepts to a machine, it’s forcing us to think, “What do these things mean? What is this?” That turns this grandiose exploration and that’s helping us develop better therapists and better psychologists in turn because then we’ll understand some of these things on a deeper level.
That’s what a salesperson is on some level. Even a hairdresser is a psychologist on some level. Anyone who’s interacting with people where they feel like they need to vent their frustrations or open up and share their problems or their fears. Even something like a mortgage broker. You have to say, “Here are my financials.” There’s some level of trust that has to be built. Adweek interviewed me to analyze which Super Bowl commercials told the best stories and it was a fascinating exercise to analyze them all.
Google was one of the top because they did that whole thing about the older man losing his memory and using Google to replay their favorite songs of his dead wife and to keep that memory alive. Anytime a product is a Sherpa to help someone be more human. It’s not about the technology. It’s about, “This memory would be lost without it. It helps me grieve and helps me remember someone I love that’s not here. I’m using my own memory.” It’s memories within memories, and then they showed a movie clip, and then you’re like, “Oh my God.”
You’re into the sophistication of stories within stories within a short commercial. That’s what I live for, that kind of analysis, having an advertising background, and all that. What was it like being in China? We can’t let you go without asking a question for goodness sake. Different cultures and different values, your meeting in the world of AI for the common language, I’m guessing. I’ve had some people that live there and said, “We moved to LA to better air.” I’ve never heard of that before, but you probably can relate to that.
China was interesting. I enjoyed my time out there. I lived in a city called Ningbo, which is a small city with seven million people. It was my first time in China, people have always said, “The best way to describe China is the Stone Age meets the Space Age.”
They jump right over the Industrial Age?
You can’t explain the size and scale of China and how things work without experiencing it. That’s true because when I get to China, everything’s on a massive scale. There are many people. The university has 600,000 students. You can’t even fathom that here in the United States. The Space Age meets the Stone Age is, you’ll be in a part of the city and you’ll see these 1,000-year-old buildings. A little bit dilapidated maybe and maybe some wirings. Right next to it is this totally sleek, modern, Platinum LEED-certified skyscraper. It’s such a dichotomy, but you can see the mindset in China.
Living there was immersive. I live like a local and work like a local. I understood how they thought. The thing is they think in terms of long term and in terms of community goals. They’re thinking not so much about what they need to try to accomplish this week or this month. They’re thinking about, “Where does my organization need to be in 10 years or 100 years? What are the steps?” No matter how many small steps they have to take to get there. This has shaped the culture and the mindset out there. They have amazing food.
That takes us to where you’re teaching. What are some of the favorite things you like about teaching?
I never thought I would go down this path, to be honest, but I enjoy connecting with the students, have a chance to share my knowledge, and more importantly, my experiences so that they make new mistakes and not the same mistakes I did.Entrepreneurs have to be willing to take risks and think differently. Click To Tweet
That’s one of my favorite questions. If you could go back in time to your younger self, what would you say? As a teacher in college, are you saying to them, “AI is the future. You’ve got to learn this and embrace this.” I heard somebody say reading, writing, and coding. When you’re not teaching your children all three, it’s child abuse, to be prepared for the new world.
I tapped into Wayne Gretzky. I tell my students out. If you’re not familiar with Wayne Gretzky, he’s probably one the greatest ice hockey player ever. People used to ask him, “Why are you good?” He said, “My secret? I don’t skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck will be.”
That’s why people hire you to be the speaker. You help them visualize what’s coming around the corner, even if you can’t predict the pandemic. Maybe they could because it happened 100 years ago. They’re like, “We’re due.” What advice do you give entrepreneurs so that they can be like Wayne Gretzky in their business planning? The traditional business plans from yesteryear don’t even make sense anymore.
Things happen too fast, change too fast. You probably hear the expression all the time, John, “Feel fast. Learn change.” It’s true even in regular business, not just entrepreneurship. I tell entrepreneurs, “You’ve got to be willing to take risks when you have to think differently.” It’s not just you have to have the great idea. You’ve got the idea, build the idea, own the idea and create the infrastructure around the idea. You’ve got to do all these things to be successful. I have a framework I called TUCBO, Think different, Understand different, Create different, Be different and Own different. If one focuses on the team, they think if I get the T, “I’m golden.” Idea by itself is not worth the whole lot if you’re not going to build it, create it, get the buy-in, and build the infrastructure.
I will share the story of Tesla. Why is Tesla successful in electric cars, where everyone else has failed for decades? They have some great technology and they made some great advancements in batteries. That’s not the selling point. They didn’t think differently. They didn’t create differently. One of the big edges they created was they took away the reasons to say no. Are you worried about finding a charging station? They have an app for it that will tell you where they are. Are you worried about infrastructure charging stations out there? We’re building that infrastructure. We’re out there negotiating with the shopping malls, retail centers, theaters and grocery stores to get prime locations for those stations for you.
That’s what the competitors weren’t doing. I remember there was another electric car company right around the time of Tesla. It was like, “That’s just for rich people. It can’t hold the charge to go from LA to Vegas.” “Somebody put a charging station in the middle?” I like that. That’s a great quote. “Take away the reasons for people to say no,” and that’s true whether you’re Tesla pitching. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you for a tip since you judge and hear many pitches for investment. Any tips on how to give a great pitch to an investor? What mistakes to avoid? Either one, whatever you want to do.
You have to tell a relatable story. You’d love that, John. I’ve heard over 2,000 pitches in my life. You have to tell a relatable story and you have to connect with the investors in the room. I see people come in and they probably have a great idea and they got some traction going on. They’re saying, “Fourteen-year-old kids are going to love this.” If you look at the room, the average person in this room was 52. How are they going to connect with that? If you said, “Your fourteen-year-old kid is going to love this better.” You have to tell the story and have to make it connect and stick. Otherwise, they’re never going to get it.
Also, a good story makes you memorable. Think of hearing 2,000 pitches. You probably remember the ones that have amazing stories because that’s how our brain works and keeps things in our memory because we’re not AI where we can’t just pull all 2,000 up at one time. We’re going to remember the ones that have that emotional story that is not only relatable but hopefully, has some emotional hook to it. I know you’re involved in social causes as well as part of your own purpose and premise. What’s in the book, Own the AI Revolution? That’s the hint. How’s that for a transition? We have artistic intelligence as part of a play on words instead of artificial intelligence on top of artificial empathy. You’ve given us all kinds of great ways to reframe everything, which nobody appreciates that more than I do. What is in your book that can make people intrigued enough to want to go buy it?
My book Own the AI Revolution is geared around what would I call the three Es, Education, Empowerment and Enablement. It’s been for non-technical business leaders, specifically because most of the books were technical or too high-level, too theoretical, or too fearmongering. It gives you a little sense of what exactly is AI? What can it do and not do? The empowerment is to help you answer the question, how do I figure out something to do with AI? Everyone’s like, “I know I should do something but how do I figure that out?”
It empowers you and shares a framework, a set of steps on how to do that. When the enablement is showing you, how do you do it? How do you build a team? How do you go out and put the product to market? It’s woven in with a lot of different real-world stories. It’s non-technical people that have started new business units, new startup ventures with AI to show you that you don’t need to be a smart technologist to do something with this. Most successful ventures I’ve seen were non-technical people. How many technologists know how smart they are? Know the ground problems of a marketer or a doctor or an accountant?
When I spoke at the Coca-Cola CMO Summit, I was talking to the CMO of Domino’s Pizza. I said, “Your team built the app that tracks pizza from order to delivery.” What I thought was fascinating, Neil, was their overall goal was to give people the perfect pizza experience. From that place, they said, “How can we use AI to cut down a few seconds on the delivery time for the perfect experience?” We have thought if you want a pizza and it comes faster, it’s almost boom. It’s a Space Age stuff.
If you order the same pizza at the same time every day or the same order week after week, then the minute you open the app or pick up the phone, AI goes, “Let’s go ahead and put the order in before they finish completing it. We’ll eat it if they change it.” Those few seconds of getting the pizza started before the order is completed, the predictiveness that might give the consumer a better experience and they may not even notice it. “My pizza is coming here faster,” but maybe they will. I don’t know. That to me was one of my favorite examples of it being used in a way that most people aren’t aware of.
We may not necessarily notice that. If you think they still do some more small changes like that.
“How are they getting those pizzas? They’re fast.” Any last thoughts you want to share with us? Tell people how to find you for speaking. Any last thoughts you want to have to us about what is coming around the corner that you can share, like the puck?
I will tell you there’s a lot of cool things going on but I know a lot of people are wondering, “How can I be in front of the curve?” The best way to predict the future is to create it. We all have a shot or a chance to be a driver but we don’t realize that. Think about something. Even a small thing, a pain point, or an opportunity or something tedious. There’s probably an opportunity there for you. Do something small or big and it’s worth exploring. If you want to learn more about how to do that, definitely come and check out what I have on my website, NeilSahota.com, or you can follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter. I’m always sharing stories or things about what people are up to or I’m doing. Hopefully, you’ll find some inspiration.
I know we will. You’re riveting and thank you for sharing your intelligence, real and artificial, with us all.
It’s my pleasure, John. I had a blast.
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