Artificial Intelligence’s Cambrian Explosion: Manoj Saxena On The Next Decade Of AI— And Beyond

In 1956, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon infamously predicted, “Machines will be capable, within 20 years, of doing any work a man can do.” While Simon missed by over 40 years (and counting), Artificial Intelligence (AI) entrepreneur and investor Manoj Saxena believes this time is different. While hype obscures the near term, Saxena explains, “AI is not a 50-year trend. It’s a 500-year trend.”

Few have better perspective. In addition to leading early commercialization of IBM’s Watson from 2011 – 2014, Saxena has founded and scaled multiple AI-based companies and funds, including current venture Cognitive Scale.

In a wide-ranging conversation in Iceland in late 2017, Saxena and I parsed AI fiction from reality. We met thanks to Emmet Keeffe’s Insight Ignite, a program he founded at global venture firm Insight Venture Partners. Ignite gathers leaders from across the enterprise technology arena in compelling locations to envision the future.

Beyond AI False Starts

According to Saxena, “We’ve had a few AI winters. Most of those were focused on modeling the world or modeling the mind.” Given our limited understanding of how human intelligence works, much less how we make sense of the world, such a broad objective as re-creating general intelligence contributed to hyperbole and disappointment.

Somewhere around 2016, he argues AI hit an inflection point, for which Saxena cites two reasons for optimism: the resurgence of ‘learning loops’ as fundamental for AI and the fact that AI has become practical for a rapidly expanding range of business and life decisions.

AI thrives when it’s not just relying on hard-coded instructions, as was typical of most GOFAI (good old fashioned AI), but when it can learn from interactions. The evolution of neural networks-- first demonstrated by Frank Rosenblatt in 1957 but abandoned by most researchers until the 1980s-- machine and deep learning enables AI to advance rapidly in response to the contexts in which it’s operating.

Meanwhile, a torrent of venture funding over the past few years, including from Saxena’s own fund, The Entrepreneurs’ Fund, amplifies the search for practical applications. He advises, “A little AI goes a long way. Figure out how a business process works, then let’s apply AI.”

From Audacious Experiments to Practical Progress

Saxena’s practical advice—find tangible problems to tackle—becomes more useful when researchers push the horizons of possibility. Audacious, well-considered goals catalyze progress.

For example, IBM’s Jeopardy project was more than just a publicity stunt. From a research perspective, the syntactic, semantic challenges were enormous. On a recent visit to IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, New York, IBM’s head of Cognitive Assets, Jesus Mantas, explained that winningthe gameshow was not originally about practical application. It was about challenging what was possible. “After the research team’s success, we asked, ‘what now?’ How do we convert AI to business value?” Saxena led this effort for IBM from 2011 – 2014, building initiatives in fields ranging from healthcare to logistics.

As he explores the next decade, Saxena envisions pivotal progress regarding one weak link of computational systems—humans. Our interfaces are notoriously slow. “The weakest link for AI is the last foot. It’s the 100k per second that you can feed your brain.” Solving the brain-computer interface challenge transforms the potential for AI-enabled solutions. “The world is going to become our browser, we will become the cursor.”

AI Chuckies With Knives… And A Cambrian Explosion

It is impressive to experience Saxena’s ability to synthesize historical and ethical insights with the practicalities of business and technology. Successful entrepreneurs and technologists act on practical insights, but too often lack a sense—or care—for how their actions might impact humans, society or humanity.

When I asked what most concerns him about the next decade in AI, Saxena opined about AI’s extraordinary risks. “If we don’t design the systems properly or govern the systems with the right kill switch, you could have thousands of little Chuckies running around with knives in their hands.”

Saxena is directly engaged in these issues. In addition to his personal attention, he recently endowed a faculty chair in responsible AIat his alma mater, Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business. In particular, he’s concerned about application and access. AI could end up “making the rich richer and… the evil more evil.”

Alloyed with wise concern, Saxena’s enthusiasm shines. Mixing two colossal metaphors, he predicts we’re witnessing “a Cambrian Explosion of innovation. Ten years from now, we will look back and say that we had a digital Florence movement. What Florence went through with the Renaissance.”

With Saxena’s metaphor as a guide, perhaps AI will be more than a 500-year phenomenon. With AI’s rapid advance, perhaps a few of us might remain cognizant enough to find out.

The late Stephen Hawking often expressed concern for the future of the human species, with AI as our nemesis. Inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil, sees a utopian future. While futurists hypothesize away, entrepreneurs, executives and government leaders must navigate regardless. Entrepreneur and industrialist Christian Stadil, co-founder of Danish conglomerate Thornico Group, seeks “Buddhist middle paths.”

While in Copenhagen, I had the opportunity to spend an hour discussing Stadil’s journey building Thornico Group, and much more. We explored topics from leadership, creativity and “company karma” (a concept Stadil applies across his enterprises) to virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the future of humanity. Along the way, he touched on Picasso, Kierkegaard, Voltaire, women’s rights in Afghanistan, even immortality and sustainability. (Read the full Forbes interview here.)


Lone Frank got tired of killing rats. Following her doctorate in neurobiology, she realized her first love was outside the lab, considering how science and technology might impact our lives.

Frank is now one of Europe’s leading science journalists. Given the magnitude of change underway, her work is essential. From Mindfield and My Beautiful Genome to her recent work on deep brain stimulation, The Pleasure Shock, launching this month, Frank’s work provides insights into our future— ready or not. (Read the full Forbes interview here.)

On March 22nd, Insight Venture Partners convened its Insight IGNITE Innovation Roundtable in Iceland. Today we're sharing the first of three interviews shot on location, in Iceland at the Blue Lagoon, site of the roundtable. We start with Emmet B. Keeffe III, Venture Partner at Insight Venture Partners, and 3 Billion Seconds host Rob Wolcott as they explore Emmet's journey from becoming an entrepreneur, to Formula 1 fanaticism, being early versus being right, to Emmet's three words to describe the future.

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