Innovating for the future
Dr John Zakos of the IBM Watson team and UTS Honorary Professor believes in entrepreneurial students and a bright AI-powered future
John Zakos has been dreaming about talking and thinking machines for most of his life. Captivated by computers since childhood, he built a chatbot for a year 9 school assignment. He went on to co-found AI company Cognea and created a breakthrough conversational virtual assistant for Australian businesses during the mid-noughties. Interest from IBM led to an acquisition in 2014.
As Program Director of Virtual Agents, Dr Zakos and his team are working on Watson, IBM’s AI for enterprise—specifically in conversation interaction and delivering AI-based customer service solutions globally. By the end of 2017, Watson has reportedly interacted with over one billion people. Dr Zakos also inspires and advises students and staff on innovation as an Honorary Professor at the UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT. He believes two traits are essential for people who want to make an impact in the world.
“You can read books and learn all day, but if you’re not dreaming and imagining things, you’re not doing much in terms of innovating for the future.” In fact, Dr Zakos was imagining a new type of university a few years ago at IBM New York, when colleague Michael Blumenstein came for a visit.
It was a university based on a strong entrepreneurial culture. “Students would end up starting ventures and companies as a part of their experience.” Professor Blumenstein, then recently appointed at UTS as Associate Dean (Research) at the Faculty of Engineering and IT, was enthusing about innovation and a commercially-minded approach the faculty and university were fostering. A partnership was destined to follow.
After joining UTS in 2017, Zakos and staff have been exploring approaches to channel university research and technology into the market as real products, and new research methods. He informally advised PhD and Honour students on a project that automates the insurance underwriting process through AI and machine learning. “I was looking at the way they developed it, the technologies used, and giving direction on how to take it forward as a research project and commercialise it.” The pilot program was recently unveiled at business technology showcase CeBIT as a collaboration with ANZ OnePath.
It’s just one example of UTS’s strengths in preparing students for future careers. “Beyond core academic work and courses is the fact that UTS is heavily associated with industry partners,” Dr Zakos enthuses. “There are PhD and Honour students doing work based on an industry project—that in itself is huge. It’s got real-world applicability.”
He’s a big believer in students as entrepreneurs:
Go out there. Start companies and create new products, things that don’t exist at all—and do it in the way you want to do it.
Determination, the right timing and having the right people are crucial for success. “You can have an average idea with great people, and it can have legs. Or you can have a great idea with people who don’t execute it in the best way, and it might not necessarily make it. When you have a combination of a great idea and great people, it’s almost like a no-brainer.”
So what skills are essential? For IT students, he can’t stress enough the importance of solid programming and design expertise. From a research perspective, students with publications in circulation as early as possible are well regarded. In his experience, soft skills, while important, are not necessarily required across the board.
“Someone might do brilliant work when left alone,” he explains. “And then you have a person who’s brilliant at teamwork and interpersonal skills, who can bring out the best in somebody who’s hard to get along with. I found that a variety of people in a team collaboration is a healthy thing.”
The future of AI
By 2021, an industry report predicts over 65 per cent of consumers will be interacting with customer support bots; even more commercial apps will be using AI.
Providing value through automation is the main thing that AI is going to do. It’s going to be doing it across a lot of different industries: health, financial services, customer service, security and different sciences.
AI will either work completely autonomously—think smart groceries that just turn up at your home according to your needs and health profile—or support people with a process. “Imagine you go for a blood test. Before you even have any symptoms, a system can tell if you have cancer by analysing your DNA profile.” Doctors are then guided by the information to introduce prevention measures or therapy early on.
Despite fears of automation leading to job losses and an AI apocalypse from certain tech-leaders, Dr Zakos is positive. “We have a long track record as a civilisation of creating technologies that make our lives easier.” Automation speeds up tasks and saves on cost. “Over the course of history, there are many examples of technologies providing that value, and humans have always moved on into different areas.”
It’s going to be no different with AI. “There will be new types of jobs invented and new skills required,” says Dr Zakos. In this future, he envisages more companies being spun out of universities. “As I work more with UTS, I see opportunities to do that.”