Sternie Seeks Artificial Intelligence in Phoenix

ChahinianMike Chahinian, MBA Class of 2017

One of the most amazing things about business school is that it will take you in directions you never anticipated. I applied to Stern with the intention of being a Private Wealth Manager, which seemed to suit my interest in the markets and background in public policy very well. That plan didn’t survive my first conversation with Citigroup’s recruiter, however, in which I was told that I actually want to be an investment banker. Then in Launch Week we were charged with creating a business idea with our study groups. Our group invented “Cup-o-Sugar,” an app that will one day enable you to meet people nearby for any purpose, including playing tennis, practicing a foreign language, or going out to dinner. It will also let you request help from neighbors, hence the name.

Cup-o-Sugar reopened my eyes to the world of technology. Although I had studied computer science for a year at Cornell and even worked on the website for a summer, I decided to shelve that world when turning to public policy later in college and beyond. Now after mini-careers as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C. and a naval officer based out of San Diego it’s being revived thanks to the stimulating environment here at Stern. This newfound interest in technology recently culminated in paying my own way to attend the Thirtieth Annual Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Conference in Phoenix the weekend of February 12. Why would an MBA student primarily interested in finance pay $1,200 out of pocket (including airfare and hotel) to attend a conference about a subject he knows nothing about? The answer to that question starts with two films- “Triumph of the Nerds” and “The Social Network.”

We were required to watch “Triumph of the Nerds,” a documentary about the origin and rise of Microsoft and Apple for Core Strategy in our first semester. The documentary featured interviews with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs about how they started and their initial successes. I followed up that documentary by watching “The Social Network” for the first time, which as you probably know is the dramatization of the founding of Facebook.

The leaders of all three companies— Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg—all had something in common. They were able to accurately size up an emerging megatrend and then get in front of it. For Gates it would be the importance of business applications to the rise of PCs, for Jobs it was the ease of use of a graphical computer interface, and for Zuckerberg it was the use of the internet to share information with friends. I believe that artificial intelligence is going to be one of the next megatrends, and I decided business school is a perfect time to travel to learn more about upcoming trends.

The conference was vastly different than expected, but definitely gave me a good sense of the current state of the industry. I decided to attend the “Tutorial Sessions” because those were supposedly dumbed-down for students. Well, they weren’t simplified quite enough for my tastes, but they still proved very instructive.

Fear not, friends; the Terminator is not going to emerge from behind the curtain at one of these conferences anytime soon. For example, a recent project programmed a robot to be able to sense what kind of food it was cutting and adjust its cutting style accordingly. Everything went smoothly until the robot was given a serrated knife, after which it couldn’t figure out how to cut anymore. Driverless cars are another instructive area—in a recent test a major company’s prototype mistook a plastic bag in San Francisco for a “flying deer.” Although there is some visual similarity between the two, the computer was not smart enough to understand that a flying deer would be very unusual in downtown San Francisco. “Machine reading” is another area still in its infancy. The sophistication of the machine reading projects ranges from simply capturing tagged information from Wikipedia and storing it in a database to one that scans the entire Internet looking for connections between words and building a set of “beliefs” about the world.

The bottom line is that although the current ability of “artificial intelligence” is quite limited, the potential is vast. The technology is already being applied at IBM Watson to improve health care, and multiple firms are using it for cybersecurity. I would encourage any of my classmates who want to explore big ideas while at Stern to go for it—this is the best time in our lives to discover.

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