March Magic Memories: Amir Husain

The Forrest Four-Cast: January 2, 2018

The Founder and CEO of SparkCognition, Amir Husain leads a company that he has positioned to be at the forefront of the “AI 3.0” revolution. An undisputed tech leader in Austin and in the industry at large, he built multiple venture-funded startups between 1999 and 2009, at which point he took over as President and CEO of VDIworks. For his many inventions, Husain has been awarded 22 US patents and has over 40 pending patent applications. His first book “The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence” was published in November. At SXSW 2018, Husain will speak on a session on Friday, March 9 titled “The Power of Vertical AI in a Monolithic AI World.”

In 20 words or less, what is the main focus of your current job?
As Founder & CEO, to grow SparkCognition and advance our goal to realize the full potential of artificial intelligence in all spheres of life. 
 
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A computer scientist. Since the age of four, I’ve been enamored with computers and software. In my teen years I became seriously interested in artificial intelligence. I’ve been fascinated with the idea that the core concepts underlying computation provide a framework to understand a lot of what goes on in the universe and in our daily lives. The philosophy, science and practical applications of computer science continue to intrigue me no end.

How do those career aspirations from your younger self connect to what you are doing now?
I was very lucky in that I found a passion at a very young age, and stuck to it. It turned out to not be a mere passing interest, but a core driver of my life’s work. With my own children, I’ve encouraged exploration across disciplines because — based on my own experience — I feel the biggest gift a parent can give a child is to help them find their passion; their true calling. If you can do that, the incredibly curious and tenacious mind of a child will do the rest.
 
What are you most passionate about at present?
Artificial intelligence in general, but specifically, cracking the code on “intrinsic motivation”; the idea that human beings not only have general purpose intelligence, but also the innate desire and curiosity that directs this pliable intelligence in myriad different directions. How do we get machines to do that? 
 
Actors, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, whoever — you can invite any three living people from anywhere in the world to dinner. Which three people do you invite?
Bill Gates, Xi Jinping and my physicist sister and string theorist, Tasneem Zehra Husain. I’m assuming my wife, Zaib, and my three boys would be hosting this dinner with me. A big attraction for me would be for the boys to listen in.
 
What is the last great book you read and why did you like it so much?
I recently finished “Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God” by the historian Will Durant, whose books I was introduced to as a child by my late father. This was Durant’s last work, printed years after his passing. I have been giving copies to my loved ones and many friends ever since I finished it. It is my kind of world view and my kind of philosophy… an absolutely brilliant work by one of the greatest Americans of all time. 
 
SparkCognition recently hosted a two-day conference on artificial intelligence called “Time Machine 2017.” Who was your favorite speaker at the event and why?
The caliber of speakers was exceptional and in truth, all the talks were fantastic. I thought Gen. Allen and Boeing CTO Greg Hyslop were particularly phenomenal. Gen. Allen touched upon a subject of great personal interest to me, which is the impact of exponential advancements in AI at a time when the geo-political balance is shifting so radically. I thought the points Dr. Hyslop made about truly large scale aerial autonomy being one of our great unconquered frontiers were very poignant. 
 
Was this conference-organizing experience a good one? Will there be a “Time Machine 2018”?
It was spectacular and impactful beyond our expectations. There will most certainly be a Time Machine 2018! We’re planning it already. 
 
In addition to SparkCognition, there are quite a few other startups / companies doing impressive AI-related work in Austin. How does the AI scene here compare to other cities? What is the city’s competitive advantage in context to other locations?
I’m very bullish on Austin’s role in driving the AI ecosystem. I think UT Austin is our massive advantage, and I’m sure our Chief Science Officer and former chairman of UTCS, Prof. Bruce Porter, will agree. According to the latest US News rankings, our CS Dept. was #1 in the country and #2 in the world. When you factor in the sheer volume of students UT Austin graduates, the quality/quantity combo is hard to beat! Back in 2015 at my SXSW session I said we were very excited about building Austin up to be a global center for AI. So far, SparkCognition alone has brought in more than $100M in direct outside investment and reinvested revenue to the Austin ecosystem. At our company alone, we’ve got close to 50 Ph.Ds. focused on AI applications and research. Then there are other companies that are doing great work too. The fact is, Austin is already a TOP global AI destination. 
 
What does the city need more of to continue to grow as a center of AI innovation?
Two important things, in my view. First, the city needs to maintain its character as much as possible. We have to remember that what makes Austin attractive to a lot of companies and top tier researchers is the quality of life you get here. I think urban planners have a challenge ahead of them, which is to maintain the city’s character while enhancing infrastructure that can support the significant growth we’ve seen and will likely continue to see. Second, we need to enrich UT Austin with support, grants, investments, industry partnerships… whatever we can do. I’m on the Advisory Board of UT’s Computer Science Department and I feel making UT stronger is one of the smartest things we can do to drive innovation and research in Austin.
 
Various tech media have reported on how much focus China is putting on artificial intelligence. Do you agree with this perception — and does it concern you if the US is not the world leader in this industry?
At a recent Center for a New American Security conference in DC where Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt and I were both speaking, and several top DoD officials and Generals were present, I asked Eric how soon China would catch up to the US in AI. He said they would catch up in five years in his view. If present trends hold, I concur with Eric’s assessment. This may be surprising to many since we’ve got a lot of advantages relative to our strong network of universities… and let’s not forget, the Dartmouth conference that saw the birth of AI as a field of research happened right here in the US. All that said, China is going to be the strongest competitor the US has ever faced. Their determination to lead the world in AI within the next 12 years, as articulated in their 2030 AI plan, cannot be taken lightly. This is not entirely a zero sum story by any means, but let’s be realistic. AI can enable a strategic and tactical edge… 
 
Your new book is titled “The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence.” How long did it take you to write this book? What was your writing process like?
It took me close to three years to write the book. I wanted to get it right and express ideas that would remain relevant for a long time. I think I got pretty close. It was hard to do this concurrently with running and growing SparkCognition, and I don’t think I could have managed were the book on any subject other than AI. The fact that I’m obsessive by nature and think about AI and the future world we’re building round the clock certainly helped! There were so many ideas I’d been churning in my head for decades that started to simply flow out the tips of my fingers and on to the screen.

In the future, will robots be better authors than humans?
Photographs are a more accurate representation of reality, but there is still room for the “inaccuracies” that materialize on canvas in the form of a human artist’s creative license. I think AI systems will be better at almost everything eventually, but for many areas, “better” is a subjective concept. The real question is, will there be room for humans? And I think the answer to that is, yes, there will be.

What do you think SXSW will be like in five years?
I hope it will continue to get more interactive and more demonstrative. That is one of the strongest things about SXSW and I hope to see much more of it over time. I also hope it becomes more global, with a greater percentage of speakers and attendees coming in from all parts of the world. Exponential technologies are so fast-paced (by definition!) that it is hard to imagine what topics SXSW 2023 will feature, but I think we’ll see some really exciting applications of AI bringing autonomy to areas we didn’t think possible. We’ll should also be seeing a tremendous explosion of robots of all types in 5–10 years, so I think that will be an exciting area too.

Other installments of the March Magic series include interviews with Tim O’Reilly, Guy Kawasaki, Robyn Metcalfe, Stephanie Agresta, Andrew Hyde, Brad King, Gary Shapiro, Chris Messina, Yuval Yarden, Jenny 8. Lee, Aziz Gilani and whurley.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.