By Brian Rinker – Staff Reporter, San Francisco Business Times
Mar 27, 2020 (bizjournals.com)
Billionaire CEO and author Tom Siebel believes artificial intelligence can improve nearly all aspects of business and society, including slowing down the spread of COVID-19.
On Thursday, Siebel launched a collaborative effort called the Digital Transformation Institute to bring together the leading U.S. research universities to advance AI technologies and join in the world’s fight to end the coronavirus pandemic.
To do that, they have put out a call for research papers that will address innovative ways for using AI against the disease. For example, AI could predict where the disease will spread next, allowing resources to be allocated as needed. It can also be used, Siebel told me, to figure out what types of human behavior are linked to a predisposition toward infection.
“AI is the perfect weapon to point at this problem and say, ‘How can we contain this thing before it overwhelms us,’” he said.
The collaboration includes Siebel’s Redwood City-based AI software company C3.ai, Microsoft Corp. and a handful of partnerships with UC Berkeley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Princeton University, the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at UIUC.
Siebel, who characterized the research collaboration as a “dream team,” helped to kickstart the initiative, but management of the consortium will be handled by UC Berkeley and UIUC. The deadline for papers is May 1. Selected researchers will receive $100,000 to $500,000 in funding to support their ideas.
Beyond the Digital Transformation Institute, other research groups in the Bay Area are also exploring ways to apply AI to COVID-19. For instance, data scientists at Google Cloud-backed Kaggle Inc. and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have unleashed AI programing to scour millions of pages of peer-reviewed studies related to COVID-19.
While Siebel does run a massive enterprise AI software company, he insists the institute’s mission is not to benefit his company.
“All of the work that’s being done goes into the public domain. It will be available to everybody in the world under nonexclusive royalty free licensing,” he said.
Siebel has demonstrated over his career to be an effective and successful businessman. He sold his previous company, Siebel Systems, for $5.8 billion to Oracle and in 2016 was named by the San Francisco Business Times as a Most Admired CEO. He is also a best-selling author.
C3.ai and Microsoft will fund the research with cash and in-kind use of technical tools valued at $367 million over five years. Researchers will get to use C3.ai’s suite of AI tools and Microsoft’s cloud computing services, as well as have access to data and the supercomputer at UIUC. The first year of the project will be focused on COVID-19 with future years dedicated to other problems, like cyber security or data anonymization.
The Digital Transformation Institute was in the works for two years before debuting on Thursday. Originally, the institute wanted to focus on anonymizing data, which is a huge bottleneck in moving AI to the next stage, Siebel said. But 10 days ago, Siebel decided to pivot as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.
“It became apparent that this COVID-19 thing is the real deal,” Siebel told me. “If we’re gonna do a call for papers right now and it’s not COVID-19, what would it be?”
He got everyone involved on the phone and they all agreed that tackling COVID-19 was the right move, but they would need to do it now, not later.