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Evan Goldberg, executive vice-president of Oracle NetSuite, characterises the recent wave of generative AI (GenAI) as making good on the long-gestating promise of artificial intelligence.
In an interview with Computer Weekly at the supplier’s recent SuiteWorld conference in Las Vegas, he touched on his own backstory with AI and testified to its potential business value.
Below is a compressed and edited version of that conversation.
You got interested in artificial intelligence when you were studying applied mathematics at Harvard in the 1980s? Tell me about that.
I also had an abortive trip to the AI Lab at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. I was going to get a PhD in artificial intelligence. I would have been labouring in obscurity for many years. Now, I’d be in my heyday!
How’s generative AI thing been landing with NetSuite customers, who are very practical business people?
Well, they’re asking about it. It is different than maybe other technological advances, like crypto, where we are trying to figure how we can do something for the customer, but not necessarily getting a lot of requests from customers. This is very different. And I think because customers are experimenting with it in their personal lives, it’s setting off some light bulbs about how it could help them do things in their work life. We’re definitely getting questions about that.
This has been an area that’s intrigued me for decades. And I always knew that, eventually, this could be an engine for providing great insights and great assistance, helping with productivity, visibility, all those things we’ve been trying to do, and now it seems like, potentially, its time has come.
Have you done research among customers to find out what are the use cases that they are exploring?
We’ve been working with traditional AI for many years, so that research has already been done. I’m talking to people who are managing supply chains, questioning ‘What are their biggest problems, and how can we solve them?’ and then thinking about how they can use AI. Our AI usage really comes from talking to customers about their biggest, hardest problems in running a business and then figuring out how to plug in AI to solve those better, rather than saying, ‘Where can we plug in AI?’
We already know so much about what our customers want to do. They want to be able to hire better, do more for their customers, they want to be able to create their products quicker, deliver them quickly, more reliably, run their business more profitably. That hasn’t changed. And so, if you go to the next level down, you ask, ‘What are the bottlenecks in people’s businesses?’ and ‘How can maybe we use this new technology to unblock some of those bottlenecks, things that are taking too long? Using too many resources, distracting them from the basic tasks around growing and building a business?’
Are they seeing GenAI as a way of getting around skill shortages?
That’s a great question. I don’t think we necessarily know yet. There certainly are some businesses where you could imagine GenAI could level people up to some degree. But, again, we’re not experienced enough with it yet.
“Because customers are experimenting with [GenAI] in their personal lives, it’s setting off some light bulbs about how it could help them do things in their work life”
Evan Goldberg, Oracle NetSuite
And we obviously have this problem of hallucinations, or whatever term you want to use for it. And, when it comes to running a business, you can’t have a lot of inaccuracies.
Eventually, we’ll see how it can supercharge people’s abilities. For now, we’re mostly thinking about freeing people up to focus on the most important parts of their job rather than necessarily changing what they do and giving them more skills. But I think that’s a potential feature.
Were you taken by surprise by Chat GPT, as someone who has this long-standing interest in AI?
I was surprised how it seemed to suddenly go up so many levels, so quickly. There’s so much energy around it right now that for the next few years, we are going to see continual advances and it’s going to be really exciting. For us at NetSuite, we’re not necessarily driving the advances in AI. We’re all about leveraging the advances in AI. Oracle is, to some degree, and it is partnering with Cohere.
What we can pioneer potentially, though, is not really large language models [LLMs], I think more about large number models – how we are going to use all our data. Maybe the traditional AI or new types of AI will get better at teasing patterns out of data.
LLMs are great at communicating findings and interacting with you to hone in on what you’re really looking for. But, under the covers, there may be other types of AI. What’s happening is the neural net technology that underlies generative AI seems to benefit from high performance computers and GPUs. There’s so much energy and effort that’s going into making those more powerful, and ultimately cheaper, that you may see similar kinds of leaps in other areas of AI.
On another topic, when I met you and your colleague Nicky Tozer [EMEA senior vice president at Oracle NetSuite] in London in February, you’re both very optimistic about the economy. You said that times of economic dislocation tend to breed new companies, because there is the discipline of money not being easy to come by. Are you seeing signs of that being true?
Globally, we’re seeing the same sort of energy for business creation that we always have. As businesses grow right now, there’s still a bit of uncertainty about where things are going. So maybe that makes businesses examine each move that they’re going to make a little bit more closely, but they’re still doing it, they’re still doing the things they need to grow. It is a good time.
We have a bunch of new technology companies that are springing up out of nowhere because they want to leverage all this new exciting technology in a unique way. Every day I see so many AI companies being created. There is an epicentre for some of the more GenAI companies in San Francisco. But the application of AI to different industries provides opportunity for everybody all over the world. And you can get these skills anywhere, all over the world. I think it’s a great time for entrepreneurs.