AJ Abdallat is a serial entrepreneur. He loves to create and the businesses he puts his hands on tend to succeed. Abdallat’s latest company is Beyond Limits, a leading developer of advanced artificial intelligence solutions and leading the way in developing the technology in innovative ways. Abdallat took over the CEO reins of Beyond Limits in 2014. During his time with the company, the entrepreneur has pushed the brand to tackle industrial and enterprise challenges.
A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Abdallat has been working with dynamic companies since 1988 as co-founder or CEO of several Caltech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) startups. With a long track record in AI, Abdallat hopes to steer Beyond Limits — and the world — into a future that finally fulfills the promises of technology.
Please tell us how corporations and industries can benefit from Beyond Limits?
Beyond Limits is an AI company, but we are taking a different approach to AI. Today’s artificial intelligence market is not easy to quantify. Besides the lack of consensus on a coherent definition for “artificial intelligence” as a term, the field’s nascent stage of development makes it difficult to carve out silos or hard barriers of where one industry or application ends, and another begins. What makes us unique is our approach goes beyond conventional AI by bringing human-like reasoning and cognitive reasoning to the equation. AI enable companies to grapple with gargantuan amounts of data and do diagnostic and prognostic analysis to predict what’s going to happen and what should happen. AI’s good at that. Our systems go beyond conventional AI by explaining the rationale and evidence behind the recommended course of action.
How did your professional background prepare you for your current position?
I worked for both large and startup companies. Learned a great deal from both environments. I learned about prioritizing and focusing on what’s really important. How to effectively manage teams by setting a clear mission and directions that you rally your team around. Success does not come true in one day, years of hard work is needed.
Please tell us how the company began and what some of the highlights have been?
In 1998, Dr. Carl Kukkonen and I started working with Caltech, which manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA. With the support of Caltech president, Dr. David Baltimore, we set on a course to commercialize technologies that were developed for the space program. One example was a technology called the tunable diode laser which was developed to accurately detect water vapor on the surface of Mars. Mars has a very harsh and unforgiving environment. We created a company to apply our technology to the energy industry, because moisture is a big contaminant for natural gas pipelines. The company became very successful and a leader in its field. Now, I am focusing on our latest company, Beyond Limits, which focuses on Artificial Intelligence and specifically human-like reasoning.
Currently Beyond Limits focuses on three verticals. In energy, we’re partnering with a giant energy production company. We’re trying to help them increase and expand all production with mature subsurface reservoirs. Ultimately the goal is to deliver a cognitive ability, so they can understand what to drill next. That’s going to lower the cost of production. It’s going to make oil and gas less expensive. It’s going to help everyone.
We’re working with healthcare providers to accurately diagnose patient conditions with a high degree of confidence. Eventually that will save lives and produce a more efficient system. We’re also working with major financial institutions on applying cognitive reasoning to Fintech. One of the big highlights for me is that we’ve proved that our cognitive approach works for very tough and demanding industrial applications. What we said we could do, we did. In one opportunity, we were the fourth AI company to be engaged. But where the others hadn’t panned out, we won the business and proved that our methods work. We won the opportunity, but more than that, the ultimate compliment was when our customer became our strategic investor.
What really sets Beyond Limits apart from competitors?
A lot of things set us apart. Firstly, we focus on solving big problems for large scale industries that matter. That touch millions of people. We’re not interested in serving up pizza ads on your phone or beating the Jeopardy champion. Maybe it’s our origins in the space program, but we tend to specialize in solving complex problems in high risk environments where the mission can’t fail.
Secondly, unlike the conventional machine learning, neural networks, and deep learning techniques that are gaining traction today, we take a different approach. We use all those techniques, but we add cognitive reasoning. Much of the cognitive intelligence capability and technologies created at Beyond Limits has deep roots in what we call bio-inspired algorithms. They are designed to imitate the functions of a human brain. It allows to do things like deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning. Really the ability to do human like reasoning.
Thirdly, our systems understand situational awareness, or context. You can show a machine learning system a thousand pictures of a chair, and it can be trained to be pretty good at identifying a chair. But it will never know what a chair is for, or why a human wants to sit down, or what is a good chair compared to a bad chair. Our systems utilize human knowledge to learn context and meaning, so they can make good recommendations to people for faster, better, decision-making, and reduce risk.
One more thing. Conventional AI systems are what we refer to as black box implementations, where systems are trained based on data, but cannot explain how they got the answer. That bothers me. At Beyond Limits, we’re taking a different approach where we can explain how we got the answer. Our systems provide an audit trail that explains the rationale and evidence for the answer. I think establishing trust is important. In industries where the stakes are high, like medicine, energy, finance, people need accurate information. We need to have the doctors, engineers, and other professionals understand how they got the answer and provide them with that audit trail.
Abdallat has his eyes on growth and plans to take Beyond Limits to other areas around the world. Innovation is the company’s calling card and it has put it on the forefront of AI technology. Abdallat sees new offices and an expansion of business on the horizon along with pushing the boundaries of technology.
AJ, what’s next for Beyond Limits?
Well, there are two parts to that. One is growth. We’re going to expand on our global footprint. We’re going to open more offices in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Gulf. We’re establishing collaborative and research collaborations with many research universities around the world, and we have many talented scientists from NASA JPL. So, expanding the global footprint is going to be a key for us.
The other one is innovation. That’s really our DNA and the trend you’re going to see in 2018 and beyond is pushing intelligence to the edge. You’re going to see Beyond Limits introducing the first cognitive/symbolic AI chip. We’re excited about that. This creates tremendous opportunities for delivering cognitive solutions to locations where previously it was impossible. We’re going to complement the existing machine learning and deep learning capabilities that some companies are introducing in 2018 with our cognitive AI chip. We’re looking forward to that.
Instinct versus expertise: Which is more important?
I would say it depends on what phase you’re in. Expertise is always important, but there’s something to be said for instinct. I pay attention to what I describe as a gut feeling. If I’m about 80% it’s good. When it goes down to 50%, I’m going to re-evaluate my strategy. It doesn’t mean that I’m so good at predicting things, but I think after 20 years you start developing a great BS detector. I think for an entrepreneur this is important.
There was one time where I trusted my instincts over experience and it worked out well. We had started discussions with a major energy company, and the price of oil at the time was at $28. I remember talking to a VC about the company, and he didn’t understand why we would go after oil and gas business when the price of oil was so low. But I had a good feeling about it and believed in it. I felt if we can turn the situation around, great things can happen. I’m not going to tell you I predicted they would also invest in the company, because I really had no clue. But I trusted my feeling that they would be a good customer. Indeed, this customer became an outstanding strategic partner for us.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
From a human capital point view — attracting talent, retaining talent and building an effective team that can row in the same direction.
From a business point of view — navigating the business landscape very carefully by going after the right opportunity at the right time and taking calculated risks.
What was your most rewarding professional experience?
Taking our unique approach to AI by unifying both the Numeric — machine learning & deep learning — with the Symbolic side to create cognitive reasoning capability. Our systems are both educated and trained which allows us to handle complex industrial problems where human-like intuition for actionable intelligence is required. I am proud to say with this approach, we were able to demonstrate cognitive intelligence and win many opportunities including a global top 10 company.
While many people fear AI and other forms of technology, Abdallat stresses people shouldn’t be frightened. AI will create new jobs and opportunities for people around the world. As technology evolves, it gives people the chance to evolve with it.
Globally, how do you see the future of AI developing?
One of the misconceptions about AI, really, the clichés about conventional AI, is that some people feel machines are going to be taking our jobs. In reality, we are automating what I consider to be repetitive or dangerous tasks. Gartner did a report in 2017 where they forecasted that by 2020 artificial intelligence will automate about 1.8 million jobs. But it also forecasted that by 2020 AI is going to create 2.3 million jobs. So, the net gain is going to be about 500,000 jobs.
We at Beyond Limit believe that we are going to create a healthy collaboration between man and machine with trust, to help magnify human talent and amplify human talent. Which is going to end up creating more opportunities and more job for humans.
What’s a day in your life like?
It’s pretty simple. I get up, take a shower, feed the cats, have a cup of tea, drive to work, and think. Then I work on progress at Beyond Limits improving today from the day before. If we can continuously advance the cause and improve progress on a daily basis, we will succeed. We are at an exciting stage at Beyond Limits right now. We’re scaling up, growing, getting into production. We’re raising our C-round financing, and it’s all-consuming.
What makes you smile?
My kids. I am very proud of them.
What scares you?
Well, there are things that you can control and there are some things beyond your control. I truly believe right now there is an opportunity for us at Beyond Limits to take a leadership role in terms of next generation AI. What really scares me is what every CEO worries about at a certain phase: execution. We have a window of opportunity and need to execute to hit the mark. If you really think about it, there’s the example of Yahoo and Google. Google executed, Yahoo didn’t. I mean Yahoo had the technology, they actually had the market and brand name, but they didn’t execute.
What has been your greatest achievement?
I know I am being redundant here. Again, my kids, I’m proud of my kids. I am also, proud of Beyond Limits and my Beyond Limits family. At Beyond Limits we are carrying the flag for a new and different approach to AI.
What is your secret talent?
To build a great company, you need an outstanding team around you. Getting people to believe in your vision, values and goals is very essential. Maintaining that for the long haul is a proven recipe for success!
Which historical figure do you most admire?
I am a big fan of technology pioneers and inventors. I like many, but two I feel deserve more credit. Nikola Tesla and Edwin Armstrong. Thomas Edison gets credit for popularizing electricity, but it was Tesla’s invention that made it possible for everyone to access electricity. Second is Edwin Armstrong. He was the guy who invented FM radio. Armstrong was a brilliant engineer. Very analytical and intuitive. He didn’t shy away from complex and impossible problems. His ideas made significant technology advancements for radio and television. He also didn’t compromise.
Like many serial entrepreneurs, Abdallat focuses much of his attention on building and maintaining thriving businesses. Abdallat does have a great interest in history and loves to read about the American Civil War and technology when he has free time.
Do you have any hobbies?
No hobbies other than creating and building companies. But I am a big history buff. I would say history is of great interest to me. I am not biased to any specific period or region. By the way, I love the Civil War, I’m into that specific period. But I love history in general. I am very interested in the history of technology and AI. I find it fascinating that machine learning was invented in 1959. So, it’s been around for a while, but now it’s relevant to business because of the development of huge data sets and inexpensive computing power. Looking back and studying why and what happened is fascinating to me.
What are you never without?
Tea. I am more of a tea drinker than coffee. I like black tea. I like tea with mint. Also, with lemon and honey.
What advice would you give to anyone starting a new business?
I like this question. I would say it goes back to do what you believe in. Don’t let others influence you. Go with your gut feeling and instinct. It’s ok to go out of your comfort zone, but stay true to your vision and your values. I’m very passionate about technology in general. I’m very passionate about AI. I think AI is the most constructive force in computer science. I love being an entrepreneur. I feel I’m blessed to work in an environment where we can have significant and major impact on humanity.
Beyond Limits is a unique AI company, with proud Caltech/JPL heritage in our leadership team, and advanced technology developed for the NASA space program. Founded in 2014, Beyond Limits is transforming proven technologies from Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab into advanced AI solutions, hardened to industrial strength, and put to work for forward-looking companies on earth. Beyond Limits leverages this unparalleled innovation portfolio, along with the company’s breakthrough cognitive technology, to go beyond conventional AI, blending deep learning and machine learning tools together with symbolic AIs that emulate human reasoning. For more information, please visit www.beyond.ai.
By Drew Farmer
Journalist and author. Contributor