Manoj Saxena largely agrees with the idea that artificial intelligence could be as fundamentally transformative to humanity as fire and electricity. While the Eli Broad College of Business alum sees promise in that, he also envisions peril.

“I have never been more worried about AI than I am now, because this technology — if you don’t deploy it properly, and don’t make it accessible properly — will end up making the rich richer, and it will end up making the evil more evil,” Saxena (MBA ’91), told fellow alums at an MBA Reunion event in East Lansing on Nov. 9. “And I think we need to understand, as business leaders … what is it that you’re dealing with. This is orders of magnitude bigger than the internet.”

Manoj Saxena at the MBA Reunion on Nov. 9, 2018. Photo by Kasra Raffi

Manoj Saxena at the MBA Reunion on Nov. 9, 2018. Photo by Kasra Raffi

Now, he is doing his part to ensure that AI is a force for good in tomorrow’s business. This week, he and Michigan State University announced his Saxena Family Foundation’s $1 million gift to the Broad College for the Omura-Saxena Endowed Professorship in Responsible Artificial Intelligence.

Saxena knows of which he speaks. He was the first general manager of the revolutionary IBM Watson question-answering computer system, which “has pioneered everything around cognitive computing in ways that are absolutely inspiring … this whole notion of cognitive computing has really resonated with him in a way that makes it a passion,” said Sanjay Gupta, dean of the Broad College.

Saxena, now the executive chairman of CognitiveScale, an augmented intelligence software maker, “is driven to make sure that we are able to think about how this really enhances what human beings do, as opposed to taking away from what many fear can possibly happen,” Gupta said. “What is even more special is, like everything that Manoj has done, he has really taken on the biggest challenges in our society, and he has approached it in a way that is phenomenal … all of his vision has been big and bold; his goals are gigantic.”

‘It could really create a lot of havoc’

Saxena said a moral compass is necessary for what AI is. It’s not just a new kind of software.

“This is an incredibly powerful technology. It’s the first tool that mankind has ever invented that is stronger than his brain,” Saxena said. “Since the beginning of mankind, everything that we have invented has amplified our arms, our legs, but there has been nothing that amplified our brain. This tool has the potential, in the next decade, to scale and grow on its own in a way that will have massive unintended consequences. We are already beginning to see some of those things right now.”

Manoj Saxena and Glenn Omura at the MBA Reunion on Nov. 9, 2018. Photo by Kasra Raffi

Manoj Saxena and Glenn Omura at the MBA Reunion on Nov. 9, 2018. Photo by Kasra Raffi

That’s because, at its core, AI won’t necessarily stay within the human-set boundaries of traditional IT systems. It will have the ability to set its own rules.

“Everything that we have built in history has been rules-based in IT. The problem with rules is — and the good thing about rules is — they’re dumb. They stay there,” and don’t evolve independently. “AI is a pattern-based system. It picks up things on its own, like a human brain. If you don’t really understand that, if you don’t apply that in the right way, it could really create a lot of havoc.”

And it will be everywhere. According to economic projections, AI will increase the U.S. global gross domestic product by 14 percent, or an additional $15.7 trillion by in 2030, making it the biggest commercial opportunity in today’s economy.

Harnessing AI in the coming years requires the creation of a workforce that has the skills and understanding needed to build and manage AI systems that are secure, transparent, explainable and accountable, so that society can avoid unintended consequences that can be harmful to individuals, businesses, and society, according to the Saxena Family Foundation.

That’s what the new professorship will focus upon.

“One of the things is, preparing future decision-makers and future business leaders to understand how not just to make money with AI, but how to do that in a way that is responsible and ethical,” as humanity evolves from being homo sapiens to what Saxena calls homo digitalis, adding that the change is “coming faster than I thought.”

Saxena used the modern smart phone as an example of how technology is changing us as beings: “That phone is an extension of us, and it’s transforming us, and it is going to transform us as a society.”

Honoring a mentor

The professorship is named for Glenn Omura, a Broad College professor and mentor to Saxena. Omura calls his former pupil “a visionary … all of this stuff about responsibilities and ethics comes from deep within him.”

“He can see the potential evil that can come from artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, and so forth. And he wants to make sure that his legacy, aside from building this industry, and being a forerunner in this industry [is that] ethical responsibilities and good management will follow in his tracks.”

“It is the kind of thinking that I’m most proud of, more than anything, that we at Michigan State, at the Broad College, will graduate students with that kind of ethical thinking,” Omura said.

In turn, Saxena said of Omura, “His style of teaching, which I do believe has been foundational to some of the entrepreneurial things that I have been doing, has been around questioning the status quo, and there is no single answer to a given problem.”

Impact in the world, not just in class

Saxena is hopeful that his endowment will help make a real difference in the world as AI takes its place in society.

“My hope is, 20 years from now, hopefully, my daughter comes back here and talks about her dad and what Michigan State is doing,” he said. “It should be about responsible and ethical AI, because I do believe that it is your responsibility not just to make money with this technology, but also to do good for society.”

That fits with Saxena’s mantra: “Do good, have fun, make a lot of money, but never get the sequence confused.”