Vianai’s Vishal Sikka: Be Prepared for a More Fragmented World

vishal sikka

What will the world look like after the pandemic? Dramatic disruptions have upended the ways in which people work and live, but which changes will be fleeting, and which ones will persist after the crisis has passed?

Vishal Sikka, CEO of Vianai Systems, an artificial intelligence (AI) startup headquartered in Palo Alto, believes the answers to such questions are difficult to foresee. Still, some signs are emerging. “Many of us have become accustomed to working from home,” he says. “Earlier today, I closed a deal with a customer in Europe on the phone. These things used to require getting on a plane and going somewhere, but now we do them remotely. It is remarkable to see how little fuel and energy we need to get the same work done…. About a billion children are taking classes remotely — watching videos and live on video conferencing. Education has become vastly different. Many of these changes will stay with us when we emerge on the other side of the crisis.”

In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Sikka shared his insights on how leaders should manage operations during the crisis and prepare for life beyond it. He also discussed how AI will transform education and health care. Before founding Vianai in 2019, Sikka was the CEO of Infosys, an Indian IT company, and chief technology officer of Germany’s SAP. He serves on the boards of Oracle and BMW and is an advisor to Stanford University’s Institute for Human Centered AI.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

 Knowledge@Wharton: These are devastatingly sad, unprecedented, and anxious times. What is your take on the COVID-19 crisis? How did we get here?

Vishal Sikka: We have had pandemics before, going back to the Black Death of the 14th century, the plague of the 17th century, and the so-called Spanish flu about 100 years ago. More recently there were SARS and Ebola. We have had plenty of warnings on this one.

People in the high-tech industry are familiar with exponential curves. They sneak up on you. Initially it seems they are not doing anything; then, suddenly, the numbers become astronomical. Exponential growth is exactly what we have been seeing here. We are adding more than 2,000 deaths attributable to the virus every day in the U.S., which is staggering. We were comparing it to the flu, and now we see that it is vastly deadlier. Vandana, my wife, refers to it as a pandemic of education, because a lot of what we see is a result of people not being able to understand the consequences of what we are dealing with, and worse, turning their backs on doing the right things within their time windows.

K@W: How have the business and enterprise IT world changed because of the pandemic? Which of these changes will be temporary, and which ones will permanently alter the way we do business?

Sikka: We are still in the early stages. It is difficult to foresee what the world will be like on the other side of it. But we can already see certain things. For example, many of us have become accustomed to working from home. Earlier today, I closed a deal with a customer in Europe on the phone. These things used to require getting on a plane and going somewhere, but now we do them remotely. This includes meetings, classes, conferences, and even plays, concerts and performances. It is remarkable to see how little fuel and energy we need to get the same work done. At the same time, a huge section of the population has been affected in a devastating way. People, especially in the services sector, have lost their jobs. Also, some jobs have become remarkably more critical in society. Ironically, many who are working from home are not among these essential jobs.

Some of these habits we form will be permanent.

About a billion children are taking classes remotely — watching videos and live on video conferencing. Education has become vastly different. Many of these changes will stay with us when we emerge on the other side of the crisis, which could be quite a while from now. Some of these habits we form will be permanent. We are all creatures of habit. It takes between 21 and 200 days to make or break a habit, or on average 75 days, depending on the habit. We will probably not go back to the old way on some things. We can assume that we will do a lot more remotely. As a result of remote work, the idea of presence, the idea of “being there,” will be re-examined in a very deep way. Many notions of social distancing will stay with us. Masks, for example, will hopefully see an explosion in innovation. We will finally make good enough virtual presence accessible at large scales.

K@W: What will remote work mean for travel and real estate? If people do not need to fly somewhere to make deals, and if companies do not need as much commercial space, how will those industries be impacted?

Sikka: It is too early to tell. Clearly some shifts will be permanent. I hope people will use this opportunity to fundamentally re-examine energy consumption. What do we really need energy for? People during the 1918 pandemic likely were asking similar questions. Will we go back to “normal” or will things fundamentally change?

History indicates that we do go back to the way things were. We forget. I hope that some of the changes will be lasting. The internet has seen a dramatic surge, and it has held up fine. Markets are still trading. Many of our activities have moved online. We get annoyed when the internet is slow. We don’t realize that almost overnight, without notice, we have been taxing this magnificently-built, resilient and decentralized system that was put together as a result of ARPA’s efforts back in the 1960s and 1970s.

[Psychologist and computer scientist] J. C. R. Licklider wrote a memo in 1963 called “The Intergalactic Computer Network” where he said, “I am calling all members of the intergalactic computer network.” Somebody asked him, “Why did you call it the intergalactic network?” He said, “I know engineers tend to under-promise and lowball you. So, if I ask for an intergalactic network, maybe I’ll get a network for this planet.” And we got a network for this planet. Now, as the planet basically shut down, the network has held up fine. The internet never gets rebooted. There isn’t a version number on it. It is there and it is timeless. In every bit and every atom, it renews itself. It is infinitely scalable, and it is beautiful. We all are growing our lives on it, and we don’t even realize that it is there. It begs the question, why aren’t more systems built with these principles? This is an opportunity to re-do things in a fundamental way.

I mentioned transmission of presence. A lot of travel is for transmission of presence. We must ask ourselves, how much of that can be informational? And when we do travel, whether for short-lived experiences, like being with a loved one, or listening to a singer, or breathing the air while watching a sunset, or eating an exquisite meal within minutes of it being cooked, whether at a table or a truck, we will have the opportunity to find new and better ways to travel. Ways that take far less energy than we used to burn, better energy, and delivering great, rich presence and experiences in doing so.

 A lot of travel is for transmission of presence. We must ask ourselves, how much of that can be informational?

On the other hand, we may go back to our short-sighted tendencies, to the ways we used to do things. My friend and teacher Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” The opportunity to invent much better futures is in front of us. But he also recently said, “The easiest way to predict the future is to prevent it.” We have an opportunity to prevent bad things from happening, but being who we are, I fear we will also prevent many good futures.

K@W: How will this crisis impact large companies and startups, specifically those that are active in fields like artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science?

Sikka: I have been involved in leading two large companies — SAP and Infosys — before I started Vianai. In addition to running Vianai, I serve on the boards of BMW and Oracle. I saw September 11 and was at SAP during the financial crisis, so I saw how companies respond to such crises.

The first reaction of a large company is to protect and secure the bases. It seeks to ensure that liquidity is there, that the company is stable, that employees are safe, and that customer relationships are maintained and in order. Inevitably, the first firefights end up being about taking care of operations.

Next, you start thinking about what the new reality means. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, [SAP chairman] Hasso [Plattner] and I felt a tremendous sense of urgency to build to a new reality. We built SAP HANA [a relational database management system for enterprises]. Research into HANA had started much earlier, but we started the product in 2009, after the financial crisis. A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein notes that, “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” We felt that.

If you look back, many new paradigms that led to the formation of innovative companies or the transformation of existing companies happened at this time. Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, the big Chinese technology startups … all these emerged in 2008. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Alibaba were around; they were already doing well. But after the financial crisis, the acceleration of these companies as technology providers, as cloud providers, as AI leaders, in our homes, in the media and other areas became dramatic. Steve Jobs launched the iPod after September 11 and the iPad after the financial crisis. He said in the aftermath of both those crises that these were opportunities to do great things.

[Oracle founder and chairman] Larry Ellison felt the same way. Larry made significant changes to Oracle’s strategy after these events and the company came out stronger as a result. But many companies did not; they went away. Several large companies declined after the financial crisis. Non-digital businesses were disrupted. There are always these two aspects. Such crises always end up creating a new set of realities. This coronavirus pandemic will compel us to make many changes. Those of us who are mindful of that, and embrace the good aspects of what it enables, will help create a better world. But many organizations will be dramatically disrupted too.

 Some companies, like organisms, do not have the immune systems or the reserves to deal with crises.

In startups, you see a microcosm of these trends. Startups are better able to be agile, to change direction and adapt to a new reality. Startups tend also to die very quickly in times like this. I already see many promising startups – that don’t have runway and the capital raising climate has declined significantly – at risk of going under. We will see a tremendous set of innovations in the aftermath of this crisis, and we will also see many companies die. Some companies, like organisms, do not have the immune systems or the reserves to deal with crises.

K@W: What makes the difference between these two kinds of companies – those that turn adversity into opportunity and thrive, and those that falter and die?

Sikka: I am helping several large enterprise customers answer exactly this question. Customers, usually CEOs, COOs or chairpersons ask me, “What does this mean for us? What should we do because of this crisis?” The answer is always a combination of two things. First, you must protect and make sure your operations are running smoothly; that is the company’s oxygen. And second, you must look for new opportunities.

Companies that succeed in taking advantage of crises and emerge stronger afterwards have two characteristics. The first is that they start to improve existing operations because of the new reality. Usually, these are around accelerating, doing things faster, becoming more agile, more real-time or becoming more resilient, adaptive, and trusted.

The second characteristic is that they recognize the unique new opportunities this time affords. They recognize opportunities to disrupt or explore new frontiers that the new reality creates. Doing what the new reality demands, making room for it and executing on it – that is the critical part. Doing something new requires a visionary leader who can turn on a dime. Execution is even harder than the pivot. Companies that tend to go back to spending their energy on preserving the old ways tend to be the ones who fail to make it. Companies that transform both what they currently do as well as go into new areas – that make room for what the new reality needs – those are the ones that thrive.

We can see this play out during the COVID crisis. Chinese scientists had fully sequenced the genome of the virus within seven days. Vaccine makers are operating dramatically faster than they did before – and it is still not fast enough. It will still take more than 15 months for the vaccine to be in people’s hands. Nonetheless, it is dramatically faster.

At Oracle, Larry himself led the development of an app, TLS, that the federal government has rolled out. It is being used across the country by doctors who are trying off-label medicines with the permission of patients to treat the disease. It creates a central place where you can identify and understand the different treatments and their efficacy; it is like a huge real-time trial. This app was put together in a week.

To launch a countrywide app for India, which has 1.3 billion people, in six days is unprecedented.

In India, the government saw that Singapore had launched an app for doing contact tracing. The government of India put together a team to build it. When I spoke to some leaders in the government, they said they put the app in the app stores on the sixth day and on the seventh day, they launched a media campaign. To launch a countrywide app for India, which has 1.3 billion people, in six days is unprecedented. I see examples like this everywhere, like Kaiser Permanente doing their own test facilities, or retailers launching re-organized stores. In the future, speed, agility and getting things done in this new reality will be the new norm.

K@W: What do these changes mean for Vianai? How has the crisis impacted your business strategy, products, and priorities?

Sikka: The widespread need for AI in a way that amplifies human endeavor, that enhances us, improves us, is easy to understand, explore, and explain — that need has become even more acute. It has accelerated as a result of this crisis. Every conversation that I have with our customers and even with analysts makes that point clear.

We are going to make some changes. We will accelerate certain things. We have started working with some leading life sciences companies, because ultimately the act of creating a treatment or a vaccine is about asking lots of questions to large amounts of data in order to build models. The need for doing that will be even more acute. We have started doing that. Many of our customers are engaging with us to work on some of their most critical imperatives in view of this pandemic.

Compared to other companies, Vianai already had many remote workers. We have colleagues in Israel and across the United States, from Idaho to Utah, New York, Boston, Chicago, North Carolina, Southern California, Texas, Washington and Virginia. Fewer than half our employees are usually based in Palo Alto.

We create intellectual property and do knowledge work, so [sheltering in place] does not impact what we do or how we do it quite as much. We are fortunate in that sense. In terms of the areas that we apply our work to, I think that is going to change. Education has always been a key part of our strategy and that becomes more important because of this pandemic. The need to bring AI to a large percentage of the planet is even more acute now. We are accelerating our work to apply it to some new horizons.

K@W: What role can AI play in delivering education at scale? That seems to be an urgent need, considering that most campuses around the world are closed because of the pandemic.

Sikka: Learning is the act of being able to do things you were unable to do before. Teaching is about imparting that ability, and that is, by necessity, a multi-sensory experience. That ability requires close, uniquely personal transmission of knowledge — not just with a teacher who understands the pupil’s situation in a very deep way and is able to authentically tailor that content based on the pupil’s situation, but it also involves learning by doing and by engaging all our senses.

People would ask AI pioneer Seymour Papert, “How will computers change education?” and he would say, “That’s the wrong question. The correct question is, what are you going to teach, and how are you going to do it?” After that, we can think about the role that computing or AI can play in that process.

AI can help bridge the gaps between the teacher’s ability to impact many students in fundamental ways. It can also help personalize that learning, depending on the student’s situation. AI can help create more immersive experiences and help synthesize and summarize content based on the learner’s point of view without losing the authenticity of the instructor. AI can do all these things in order to dramatically improve education. You will see Vianai — and me personally — do much more in this area. Some of the things I always wanted to do have become accelerated as a result of this pandemic.

AI can help create more immersive experiences and help synthesize and summarize content based on the learner’s point of view without losing the authenticity of the instructor.

K@W: Looking beyond education to health care, how can AI and machine learning contribute to fighting the pandemic and its effects?

Sikka: More can be done to understand the spread of the disease. Look at the huge gap in testing; I find it staggering. As we speak, Germany is testing a bit more than twice the number of people, per capita, than the U.S. South Korea is testing per capita twice the number as the U.S. Switzerland is even higher. AI can help bridge the testing gap.

We are fighting a war against this virus, which is 120 nanometers in size. We can shut down and we can do social distancing, but the virus is still there. You need to know where it is, where it is spreading, and that can only be done through testing. AI can help with that.

Other aspects involve understanding the vaccines and treatments, being able to accelerate our efforts, and interrogating the data we see. We also need to build models of the body, the virus, the disease, and the molecules and the processes that we use for treatment. All these are areas where AI can help. Beyond that AI can help in understanding the consequences of the pandemic. What are the consequences for supply chains? Different countries are being impacted at different rates. What does that mean for being able to manufacture? What does it mean for the logistics? For demand? Grocery-store shelves are empty; many basic products are missing, which is unprecedented in the U.S. AI can help with these issues.

K@W: How do you view the crisis today? Where is it headed?

Sikka: Well, there are huge uncertainties here. A key point in time will be when we have effective vaccines and instant tests that are both available at a global large-scale. That point is still between nine months to 18 months away. After that, we can assume that travel and transport can resume with little friction.

But up until that point we have a different reality. Countries still must increase the testing to understand the spread of the disease, and people will have to live in not only a fragmented world, but also within countries, in fragmented regions. There may be regions with more mobility and regions with less. There may be quarantines in place for people to enter and exit from those areas that are more or less affected. Currently, regions that have contained the virus, like China (and Taiwan and Hong Kong regions), South Korea, Singapore, all of them have inbound 14-day quarantines. It is the same within countries. Some forms of distancing, such as wearing masks, will likely become new norms. I think most places will not allow concerts, movies, sporting events, experiences like that. Restaurants and bars will have to be reimagined and reconfigured, as most grocery stores already are.

The availability and movement of employees — e.g., at farms, factories, warehouses — will have to be rethought. This will impact logistics and supply chain, manufacturing, production as well as demand and customers.

What is the equivalent of a vaccine, of antibodies against disruption, for organizations?

K@W: What advice would you give CEOs about leadership in this situation?

Sikka: We humans will eventually get to immunity via survival and vaccines. But what is the equivalent of immunity from this type of disruption that every company needs to build up? What is the equivalent of a vaccine, of antibodies against disruption, for organizations? Can we create business architectures that equally balance efficiency, scale, agility, innovation, resilience, social responsibility, and trustworthiness? Can we build companies that balance commercial success with purpose and with our role in society?

One lesson that these times teach us about is empathy and human connection. In a deep way, this virus exposes us to our humanity. Of course, leaders spend most of their time securing day-to-day operations, on the wellbeing of employees, protecting the ability to deliver to customers, operating remotely, and similar issues. Empathy must carry itself to deeply human ways in which we connect with our customers, suppliers, and employees. I also advise leaders to think about life over the horizon of this crisis. It means being prepared for a more fragmented world than we have been used to. It means using AI techniques, software, and models to understand your dependencies and the consequences to your business.

Beyond that, it is about embracing this new reality and becoming dramatically better at what we do. For example, in manufacturing, the shortage of masks, PPEs and ventilators, begs the question: Why don’t we have local manufacturing? Why can’t we make anything, pervasively? We know how to make omni-factories, which with a few raw materials, can produce anything. We have 3D printing and additive manufacturing. So, why don’t we have every town with its own manufacturing facility that can make many needed things? Why do we lack reliable supply chains that are resilient to these crises?

The tendency of “just-in-time” everything has got us to this point where the shelves are empty. We lack critical equipment. Nurses are putting plastic bags on their heads because they don’t have face shields. They have to put handkerchiefs on their faces because they don’t have masks. It is unbelievable. We must rethink these issues. Fundamentally, it comes down to recognizing the new challenges and opportunities, and how to do things differently.

The tendency of “just-in-time” everything has got us to this point where the shelves are empty.

K@W: Historically, social distancing has sometimes fostered great leaps in creativity. For example, during the great plague of London, Isaac Newton wrote papers that became early calculus. Shakespeare is rumored to have written King Lear while being quarantined. How are you spending your time creatively during this pandemic?

Sikka: This is a time of stress and anxiety. Every day I do a meeting with my entire team. Just for 10 or 15 minutes, we check in on one another. Our principle is that in a time of social distancing, we should come closer together. We do it in late morning in California, which is evening in Israel, early afternoon on the east coast. It is fun to see and check in on everybody.

I have more time because of less travel. I have some technical and scientific questions for which I was not able to find time, but I am working on them now. These are big, important issues, and I am excited to see where these efforts lead.

Sometimes I cook for Vandana and the kids. Being at home is fun. I can see my dad on FaceTime. I asked myself this question a few days ago: Am I happy? With this new reality of an open-ended lockdown, and I was surprised by my own answer. I find myself happy. Earlier I had asked what is it that we use energy for, and this lockdown makes us examine that question. Ask yourself, are you happy? What makes you happy? And if you are unhappy, what is it about life before the pandemic that you miss?

I decided to do the same exercise with my team. Again, I was pleasantly surprised: I have an optimistic team. Everyone, almost universally, wrote about love, family, smiling more at neighbors, at strangers, being more in connection with the world around us. Of course, we still miss the human touch, being able to go for a drink or a meal and being together. But by and large, it tells you what we care about in life. A lot of what makes us happy is still here. We can slow down, be more mindful, more deliberate, more caring. If this is one good thing that comes from this pandemic, we will all have been much better for it.

I wish that leaders, both in governments and companies, will take time in this crisis to sow the seeds for lasting things, the learning and remembering what this was like and making that a part of their future preparedness. I wish they take charge of inventing better futures, with resilient systems that use less energy and better energy, that we never repeat the preventable tragedies we have seen. Most of all, I wish they will take time to reflect within, into the timeless, the spiritual, and think about themselves, their loved ones, their employees and the broader society that we are a part of, that this pandemic has devastatingly made clear to us. I have faith we will be better as a result of it.

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