Careers: Interviews
Amir Banifatemi, Head IBM Watson AI XPRIZE, Serial Entrepreneur, Investor

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Amir Banifatemi.

Amir BanifatemiAmir Banifatemi joins XPRIZE with more than 25 years of experience in development and growth of emerging and transformative technologies. At XPRIZE he is the Prize Lead of the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE.

Prior to joining XPRIZE, Mr. Banifatemi began his career at the European Space Agency and then held executive positions at Airbus, AP-HP and the European Commission division for Information Society and Media. He managed two venture capital funds and contributed to the formation of more than 10 start-ups with emphasis on Predictive Technologies, IoT, and Healthcare. Mr. Banifatemi is a guest lecturer and an adjunct MBA professor at UC Berkeley, Chapman University, Claremont McKenna College, UC Irvine and HEC Paris.

He holds a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Technology of Compiègne, a Doctorate in System Design and Cognitive Sciences from the University Paris Descartes, as well as an MBA from HEC Paris.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:28: Amir, please bring us up to date on some of the work you have been doing with the AI XPRIZE (IBM Watson AI XPRIZE)?
"....XPRIZE is launching a number of global competitions to tackle the world's "grand challenges"....Right now we are in the first phase of the competition where 150 teams that elected to participate in this competition are providing their first-year milestones. 50% of the teams will be moving forward. Also this year at the NIPS Conference in December, we will recognize on stage the top 10 teams and three of them will also receive a special cash prize called the Milestone Prize in alliance with IBM Watson....We have been very interested and in awe of what some of the teams are coming up with in a variety of topics covering the uses of Artificial Intelligence in "grand challenges". The domains that those grand challenges represent cover hunger, education, our well-being, our healthcare, taking care of the environment, providing better productivity and economic outlook for everyone. In that context, we have been surprised to see that out of the 150 teams, all of the topics of the Sustainable Development Goals have been covered, multiple times and even farther. We are very pleased to see how the competition has bought together the variety of teams coming from start-ups, to academic teams, to offshoots of large corporations, to multi-disciplined teams working together to build AI applications that not only tackle large problems, but also bring together domain experts and AI and technologies and different scientists...."

:04:20: How did you get involved with the XPRIZE program? Can you talk about your journey?
"....There are always fortuitous elements particularly when things happen. I was always fascinated by the works of Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis and their foresight in pushing the boundaries of explorations and really talking about abundance and how we can actually think exponentially. That led me (within my work of investments as a venture capitalist and angel investor and really a supporter of start-ups), to look at the number of companies that have the ability to really push the boundaries of innovation tenfold faster and better than just supplemental progress. So for that approach, I got to know a number of experts and mentors working with the XPRIZE. I got to meet the XPRIZE people about four years ago when I got involved in a competition called the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. I was there supporting a number of teams, getting access to funding, experts and helping the XPRIZE design team to think about the impact and evolution of teams that had been participating in this prize. Many teams were working on aspects of robotics, organization and beta science and AI and that led to a number of power sessions with XPRIZE who was, by the way, working on launching AI XPRIZE....The impact of AI in every domain was so obvious that XPRIZE could not be just a single prize focusing on one single challenge, unlike other XPRIZES....It was a natural fit for me to participate in the journey of bringing XPRIZE to life and accompanying it and at least partially to launch it...."

:08:40: Earlier in the conversation you talked about other XPRIZES, perhaps can you focus on one or two of them that piqued your interest?
"....The other prizes XPRIZE have launched and will be launching are always about pushing the boundaries of the grand domain of humanity issues. One that has piqued my interest is the Global Learning XPRIZE which assumes that many children in the world won't have access to teachers or access to pure learning or environments for learning..... Another one is the Ocean Discoveries. We know probably about 5% of what's underwater. We know more about Mars and the moon than we know about the oceans right now. So the prize is about mapping and understanding what composes underwater from a geographic perspective. Think of it as Google Maps for the oceans but also understanding what are the composition of different chemical compounds, where they are coming from, different currents, the history – so really having the live history of what’s going on underwater....A third prize (also borrowing from science fiction), which is about to be launched (I will give you a premiere here because we have not heard of it yet and we will probably talk about it when it is launched later on), is called the Avatar. And the idea is to be able to allow every human being to replicate themselves and be able to transport themselves somewhere else. Think of it as any one of us being able to have two or three different personalities being presented in robots somewhere else and being able to connect with them through all five senses. This is the future of maybe travel, communication, maybe with transportation with what we call beaming, but if that technology exists not only are you able to travel but you are able to transport yourself to more places...."

:18:46: The UN ITU/XPRIZE AI for Good Global Summit was a seminal event in June 2017 where it was the wish (I would say universal) that it would continue in some fashion. Where do you see the AI XPRIZE going in the next year and specifically as applied to the UN ITU/XPRIZE AI for Good Global Summit?
"....It was a seminal event and we were fortunate to have many high-level players come together for the first time; an eclectic group of people meeting together. The goal to continue this event XPRIZE really desires to push the barriers, but at the same time we are now trying to figure out how we can continue this event in a permanent fashion and to identify very practical aspects of deploying AI for Good that would be translated into principles or tenets or where it provides context for testing or local ground support or policy making support. The wish is to make sure that this event translates beyond any other event and not just into general wishes, strategies and recommendations, but in identifying where the practicality will probably be that will help the deployment of AI for Good become real. Partnership on AI, through defence and university labs and coalitions and even the World Economic Forum Council and many groups are working and tackling wishes and opportunities, recommendations and strategies and guidelines and everything else. We actually are innovating there, we are one of the first ones to say we need general principles and it's hard to get general principles to agree. And one way to get there will probably be by identifying field level applications that everybody can witness and base on facts and on real deployment....The seminal event has given all of us an opportunity to see the strong desire and the importance that AI has globally, and we should not diminish its importance and focus farther and to make this event larger, more than once and bring it to some more places, in terms of the spirit of it and what constitutes good and how AI can participate in it...."

:22:35: Amir, your interests are quite broad (even outside of XPRIZE and all the different projects associated with it), can you share some of the experiences of your other global work or about your global vision?
"....The passion that I have that drives me is really about us humans....The effort that if I'm lucky to participate in and have the chance to be part of this group of other innovators that are not gold diggers, but would be to contribute to a way that every human being has to participate in this creative process. I think the best transcript we can give humanity is to reassure that no one is left behind...."

:27:43: I know you had your first TEDxLA and it was very successful. How do you see your TED participation going forward? You are a venture capitalist as well, where do you see that vision going forward? What do you see as the 3 top investments or things that are investable into the future?
"....I think one will put effort behind anything where some result will materialize, and I've been fortunate and lucky to have some successes based on those efforts. In reality the TED conferences that you mentioned, the TEDx effort are a big opportunity that the TED organization has provided everyone in the world....I took that opportunity for a variety of reasons, one of them being bringing communities of like-minded people together but also to have a platform to bring some of the conversation that we just had forward because they are important topics and TED being this non-profit open-source platform is one of the best ways to promote ideas that are important. Those ideas are not my ideas, they are the ideas of very successful individuals, big thinkers, philanthropists and innovators. Whether I continue this or not will be based on other opportunities. I am always trying to be part of the groups that are pushing the boundaries of progress forward. If I have the chance to have other platforms that will allow me to do that I will definitely transition to those platforms. The AI for Good has been one of them....Impact investment has become my radar and investments of venture capitalist is an easy concept when you think about it. It is not an easy work because it requires a lot of effort but at the end of the day it's about identifying criteria for returning value. I'm not sure we have the criteria for impact investments commonly agreed upon because impact means different things to different people, but if impact were to make sure that everybody is involved and everybody has the right to participate, well I would love to invest into scenarios and situations that pay for that and make that happen and possible....I would say that future investment will be around the future of work and any topics that help people transition from job A to job B, because any void in a transition in personal life could damage your life so that is an important focus. I think concerning AI and everything that helps us understand our intelligence and other forms of intelligence is paramount and important for us. Also, the biological revolution and the genetic revolutions are definitely important for us, so investments in those areas will also be something that’s going to be important....."

:32:46: Amir, it's been a real pleasure having you come in today to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep insights with the audience.

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