Smart People: IBM’s AI guru

Jérôme Pesenti of BenevolentAI

IBM, like the residence in the Eagle’s song Hotel California, is a place you can apparently never leave – or at least senior people seldom seem to do so. It came as a surprise therefore, in late 2016, when the world’s leading artifcial intelligence (AI) expert at IBM Jérôme Pesenti announced he was heading over to a British health-care company called BenevolentAI.

Iot Smart People: Jérôme Pesenti of Benevolent AI - Smart Industry 1/2018

At IBM, Pesenti was the creator of, and lead vice-president for, IBM’s Watson Platform – a set of cloud services that leverage natural language processing and machine learning, including the provision of cloud-based APIs, for the integration of AI technologies into third-party applications.
It was headline news. “IBM’s AI guru leaps over to Brit biz,” The Register, an online news site, registered in semishock – but market insiders weren’t all that surprised. BenevolentAI had been quietly building itself a solid reputation for cutting-edge AI capabilities for quite some time. To hire someone with more than 16 years of thought leadership in the AI space made lots of sense.

AI will change our world dramatically in the future.

Jérôme Pesenti


At IBM, Pesenti also held the role of chief scientist for the company’s core Big Data product portfolio. He joined IBM in 2012 when “Big Blue” bought Vivisimo, a search and text analytics company Pesenti had co-founded. His new title is CEO of the company’s technology division BenevolentTech, but he also sits on the main board of BenevolentAI, the group holding company.
BenevolentAI was spun out of the UK pharmaceutical from Proximagen, a pioneer in molecule therapeutics, by its management team in 2013. At that point, Proximagen was owned by Upsher-Smith Laboratories, which became an early sponsor.
BenevolentAI describes its goal as being the harnessing of AI to enhance and accelerate scientifc discovery by turning the world’s highly fragmented scientific research data into fresh insights and usable knowledge that benefts society. Simply put, it aims to bring people and technology together to revolutionize the process of scientifc innovation.
Data from patient databases and scientifc papers is constantly expanding. For example, PubMed Central is a free, full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journals’ literature hosted by the National Library of Medicine, part of the US National Institutes of Health. It claims to upload 10,000 scientifc papers every day but how reliable is all that information? Some might be true, some false, and some speculative. Sifting through this huge trove of data to fnd the nuggets of really useful information far exceeds human capacity so AI will have to do the job, Pesenti notes.
His task is to create systems capable of analyzing this data and forming connections through something he calls a Knowledge Graph, which allows researchers to observe patterns they may have missed. The data might show that a protein upregulates (or increases) a particular gene’s enzyme output, he explains, and that could lead researchers to look for drugs in a totally different area.
Pesenti is as close as it comes to being a Renaissance man. He attended the Paris-Sorbonne University to study philosophy, moved on to University Pierre and Marie Curie to focus on cognitive science before completing his PhD in mathematics there.
After leaving Paris he served a brief stint in academia as visiting computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon, where he created Pittsburgh DataWorks as a local non-proft whose mission is to promote and provide access to Big Data education, projects, talent, and technologies and to help establish Pittsburgh as a leader in Big Data. Pesenti speaks fluent English, French, Italian, and Spanish.
Now at BenevolentAI, he admits to being excited about the chance “to create impactful AI technology which could bring enormous benefts to society,” reports The Register. Today, AI is already being used to fnd treatments for Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, and Pesenti’s team at IBM worked closely with hospitals and research facilities in the US to develop personalized diagnostics for many kinds of cancer.

Given Jérôme’s incredible experience in the AI and deep learning space, we’re delighted to have him on board,

says Ken Mulvany, BenevolentAI’s chairman. “Our ambition is to use our technology to accelerate all scientifc discovery and apply AI to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.” Pesenti is obviously delighted to be working for one of the most exciting companies operating in AI. Unlike critics of AI, such as Stephen Hawking, he is convinced technology will work for the beneft of mankind. “Hawking conjures images of a world either taken over by Terminator’s Skynet, or of a grand utopia where work has been abolished. The reality, however, is different,” he believes.

AI is not going to take over the world as an autocratic malevolent machine presence anytime soon. It will, however, dramatically change our world.

“While the changes to our society won’t be as spectacular or immediate as our imaginations get carried away with, they may end up being equally profound,” he adds. And he, for one, intends to continue to play a major role in shaping that AI future.

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