AI for a Better World — Moving in the Right Direction

DFJ Growth
DFJ Growth News
Published in
4 min readAug 6, 2020


by Kevin Tu, DFJ Growth

The convergence of enabling technologies makes the current “AI spring” feel different.

AI is being used to uncover new opportunities, transform industries, and usher in positive change across the world.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here today and actively shaping how we live, learn, communicate, and consume. The groundswell of interest in this technology was evident at the fourth annual (and largest ever) MIT AI Conference last month. As one of the conference co-chairs, I had the privilege of orchestrating the 1,000+ attendees, 60+ speakers, and 5 days of content that came together to virtually discuss the topic of “AI for a Better World.” The incredible mix of founders, execs, professors, and practitioners instilled optimism in the ways AI will bring positive change to society, a story worth sharing to all.

The Blooming AI Ecosystem

While AI has technically been around for a half-century, the underlying technology has gone through a series of “AI winters,” only to be catalyzed each time by new research breakthroughs. Now, in this new era, the convergence of enabling technologies makes the current “AI spring” feel different. On the software side, advancements in deep learning and neural nets have improved algorithm efficiency and accuracy. On the infrastructure side, faster and cheaper compute and networking have unlocked the value of the increasing amount of data around us. Progress with AI in practical applications is coming fast and furious.

All of this is accelerating the platform shift to AI as companies embed this new form of intelligence into their products and recognize the potential $2.9 trillion of business value it can bring. The speakers at the MIT AI Conference spanned a diverse set of industries but all touched on AI’s pervasive and transformative impact — hopefully highlighting some of their insights here will spark your imagination!

  • Data-Driven Medicine is the Cure: the ongoing explosion of data in the healthcare industry provides the foundation for new insights from drug discovery to cancer detection. For example, machine learning models and image-based representation learning are used to rapidly assess how cells respond to compounds, leading to faster identification of high-potential drug candidates (Broad Institute & Recursion Pharmaceuticals). As care and treatment become more personalized, AI will be a driving force for at-scale analysis that wasn’t possible in the past.
  • Catching Cyber Criminals with Correlation: hackers are only getting smarter, using sophisticated techniques to gain access to privileged systems. When they run into challenges like image-based CAPTCHAs that are difficult to beat with AI, they’ll use simpler scrappy workarounds like farming the tasks to real humans across the globe. The speed, volume, and near-imperceptibility of attacks are beyond human recognition, and this is where AI can bridge the gap. Companies like Shape Security are using AI models and correlating vast amounts of data to make real-time identification of threats and act on them, removing the slower and less reliable human decision making from the equation.
  • Talk about Enterprise Efficiencies: AI is working its way across the entirety of the enterprise IT stack from line-of-business applications to back-office systems. One common thread was the use of Conversational AI and Natural Language Processing to better understand spoken human intent and autonomously take action. Touchpoints with IT support (Moveworks), contact centers (Cresta), consumer banking applications (Clinc), and meeting notes (Fireflies) are getting smarter and more efficient. To enable this, the underlying infrastructure has to evolve with distributed computing frameworks like Anyscale and data labeling tools like Scale laying the groundwork.
  • A Safer and Smarter Society: one of the most compelling themes noted during the conference was the application of AI to address pressing social issues. Predictive analytics are used to identify hotspots for child maltreatment in cities and better allocate resources (Predict Align Prevent). Immersive virtual experiences can simulate gender and ethnic discrimination to build empathy (Center for Advanced Virtuality). AI-assisted hiring is unlocking economic opportunities and promoting inclusion in the technology sector. Learning platforms like Udemy and Khan Academy are making content more accessible and driving towards a more personalized experience. It is critical for AI teams to seek out sectors that can influence future generations for the better.
  • Companies Converting from People-centric to AI-first: a number of speakers discussed operationalizing AI — how to successfully deploy AI within an organization. For many, it is a major leap to embed AI in their workflows, so focusing on high-ROI use cases is one of the keys. Planning upfront, starting small, and dedicating sufficient resources are requirements. Transforming into an AI-first organization doesn’t happen overnight, but it can drive improvements to cost structure and workforce efficiency. As the industry builds tools to further democratize AI, the barriers to entry will continue to fall.

Looking Forward

Although AI has been around for decades, it is still the early days of implementing this transformative technology in practical ways. As an industry, we must stay laser-focused on responsibly wielding its power. There is an incredible amount of opportunity ahead as AI’s adoption expands and compounds. At DFJ Growth we are actively looking for companies pushing the boundaries of what is possible with AI and using it as a means to make the world a better place — if you’re building in this space, we’d love to chat!