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AI Now: Thoughts from the Woman of the Year in Business Analytics


Beena Ammanath, HPE Pointnext’s VP for Big Data, Head of AI and Innovation, has been named Woman of the Year in Business Analytics by The Fisher Center for Business Analytics at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. The award was presented at the Berkeley–Fisher Center Summit for Business Analytics on September 26, 2018. I caught up with Beena before the summit to get her latest insights on AI and women in technology.

Hande Sahin-Bahceci: Congrats on your award! What drew you to AI, and why HPE?

Beena Ammanath:

photo credit: Po Bunyapamai & Jonathan credit: Po Bunyapamai & Jonathan Jimenez.Thank you! I’ve always been fascinated by the many ways that analytics, data and technology in general can make our world a better, easier place to live. HPE has always been known as a leader in compute, of course, ever since our parent company, HP, launched its first mainframe back in the sixties. The innovations around artificial intelligence are so dazzling that it’s easy to forget that they’re always tied to the silicon. I first studied AI in the early ’90s – seems ages ago now! – but none of what we talked about then could become real because there was no easy access to data or compute. At that time it was very difficult for university students, or even most companies, to get access to serious computing resources. And we hadn’t yet accumulated the massive amounts of data that are commonplace today.

So hardware, data storage, and analytics – those three things go together, and the biggest advances will continue to come from companies like HPE that can innovate in all three. And drive the biggest business outcomes, too. We’re helping companies build extraordinary AI capabilities right now – for example, with high-performance computing solutions like our HPE Superdome Flex Server – and far into the future, with our Memory-Driven Computing initiative.

Hande: What are some of the most eye-opening advances that you’re seeing in AI?


We’re working with a huge variety of customer strategies across many different industries, and some of the ideas that people are coming up with are pretty amazing. In the aerospace industry, for example, manufacturers are interested in using AI to predict when a jet engine might fail. Sensors could collect and stream performance data and feed it into the model so you can tell if a component is going to fail in, say, the next 48 hours. Then your technicians can fix the problem proactively, before it endangers the airplane. We can do that today, but imagine how these technologies may change the fundamental design of the engine 20 years from now. Tomorrow's engines may have a robotic arm capability so that if there's a minor scratch on a blade in-flight, the machine can apply some kind of material for a temporary fix, just like a human applying a band-aid.

Or take the healthcare sector. Doctors today are buried in paperwork and spend a lot of time entering information manually into computer systems. Imagine if there was a wise assistant in the office and in the consulting room capturing all the relevant information, translating it, billing it. Then doctors could spend more time on what they’re best trained to do and love to do – one-on-one consulting with the patient.

To understand where AI is going, you have to keep an eye on all of the emerging technologies, holistically. It's not just analytics and machine learning. There's SDI [software-defined infrastructure]. There are advances in 3D printing, Internet of Things, smart manufacturing. Because everything changes together, and it changes fast. To go back to my aviation example, we’ll no doubt have new kinds of engines, but how will mass air travel itself change? In twenty years we might all be flying around in our personal drones, who knows?

That said, there’s more than enough low-hanging fruit to go around; companies should be looking at the data they currently have and uncovering opportunities to use it, whether it’s by optimizing internal processes, transforming the supply chain, or creating new revenue models. It really depends on your business, but no matter what industry you’re in, there are AI use cases today that can help you.

Hande: What opportunities does AI open for women in technology professions?


Two basic facts: AI is going to create new jobs, and women are still under-represented in technology. There’s a tremendous opportunity here for companies to proactively train more women as they build out their AI programs. There’s no guarantee that will happen, though; I’ve seen similar tech waves twice in the past – the rise of the Internet, the mobility revolution – where, if companies had been serious about building a broader role for women in IT, they could have taken action. They didn't. This time has to be different.

Educating women about this new branch of IT is an important focus for the nonprofit that I founded, Humans for AI. We provide educational content to help people in all walks of life and many different professions – marketing professionals, lawyers, teachers – understand AI and what it means for them.

If I could offer one word of advice – and this applies for men as well as women, and companies as well as individuals – it would be this: don’t be overawed by AI. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what AI really is, and a lot of buzz words and tech jargon within the field, which can result in anxiety and resistance. That’s a pity, because the level of complexity is not that high, and the opportunities are truly exciting.

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+ 20 years of global experience in technology services development and marketing for IT infrastructure, Artificial Intelligence, hybrid cloud, and security.