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Q&A with Maurice Conti of Alpha

Maurice is currently Chief Innovation Officer at Alpha, a Telefónica company and Europe’s first moonshot factory. He and his team are responsible for coming up with the ideas, prototypes and proofs of concepts that will go on to become full-blown moonshots at Alpha: projects that will affect 100 million people or more, be a force for good on the planet, and grow into billion-euro businesses. Previously, Maurice was Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Autodesk where he built and led Autodesk’s Applied Research Lab.

Maurice’s talk at CAIS 2018, titled “Automation & Artificial Intelligence: A Brave New World,” touched on many of his areas of expertise, including machine learning, advanced robotics, augmented and virtual realities, and the future of work, cities and mobility. He sat down with us in the Cayman Islands to go behind the scenes of his work at Alpha and to get his perspective on the future of AI.

Q: What is the vision behind Alpha?

A: We are a moonshot factory, which means we make big, long-term bets to create projects that have the potential to impact hundreds of millions of peoples’ lives. We want to help launch great businesses that will change the world.

Q: How do you evaluate a moonshot?

A: We use four criteria to evaluate a moonshot:

  1. Is it advanced technology? We don’t just look for incremental improvements to existing technologies–we look for truly revolutionary technologies.
  2. Does it solve a problem? Similar to how the Gates Foundation approaches philanthropy, we think about the big challenges that are facing society.
  3. Does it make an impact? There’s no single definition of impact, but in general we are working on ideas that generate a positive social or economic impact.
  4. And most importantly, is it what we want the future to look like? We describe what kind of future we want to create and then build moonshots that will help us make that future come true.

Q: What kind of moonshots are currently in development?

A: We have two moonshots currently in flight—Alpha Health and Alpha Energy.

The first is an attempt to disrupt healthcare. Illness is changing. The biggest killers are now the chronic diseases such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes and mental health disorders. Put simply – since 2000, for every life saved from infections – we’ve lost two lives to chronic disease.

We now know that the main cause of chronic diseases is everyday behaviours such as our eating habits, the exercise we do (or don’t do), smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or lack of sleep. In fact, in 2008 the leading cause of death became personal choices.

Healthcare systems today are simply not designed to help people change these important everyday behaviours. So at Alpha, we’re using advances in neuroscience, mobile computing, and machine learning to help people to take control of their own behaviour, optimise their lives, and limit the effects of unhealthy behaviour on their bodies.

The second moonshot is related to energy, specifically how to bring energy to those people who don’t have it. Experts estimate that there are about 2.7 billion people with little to no electricity. To make matters worse, off-grid households spend up to 20% of their income on inefficient and unhealthy energy. So, we are working on finding a way to get sustainable, renewable energy to these people so that they can live better and healthier lives.

Q: You have traveled all over the world. How do different countries and regions compare in their approach to innovation and technology?

A: That’s a really interesting question. Having just moved to Europe a few months ago, I think Europe takes a very different approach to innovation than Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are very tolerant of risk. If they have an idea but don’t know if it will work or how, that doesn’t stop them from starting a business. They try something, they fail, and then try again until they get it right. Meanwhile, in Europe, entrepreneurs tend to be very cautious. They like to research a subject or a technology as much as possible before committing to an actual business. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.

What I find most exciting is the opportunity that these two approaches present when you combine them. If you take the best of the Silicon Valley approach and combine it with the studied rigor of the European approach, you could end up with a powerful formula. That’s one of the things we want to put into practice at Alpha.

Q: What is your outlook on artificial intelligence?

A: I think there’s a lot of hype behind AI. That said, there are incredibly powerful tools that will–and already are–changing the face of the planet.

I don’t think we’ll see a general-purpose, “strong” AI that rivals human (or another mammalian) intelligence in our lifetimes. But I think the application of powerful narrow AIs is going to have a huge impact in how we go about our work and our lives. And I’m particularly interested in this notion of partnering with technology, like Artificial Intelligence, to augment our human capabilities. Think of narrow AIs like a toolbox full of different, specifically designed tools. You reach into the toolbox and apply the right tool to solve the problem you’re working on. I think the combination of the human mind and a collection of narrow AIs is not only more realistic in the near future, but also more powerful than a general AI that thinks for itself and works in isolation.

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