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He studied philosophy, was a business consultant in Beijing and Delhi and today he’s working on artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley. To say that, at the age of 30, alumnus Jan Beke has followed an interesting path would be an understatement.
These are busy times for Jan Beke. It’s just 8am in San Francisco and he’s already had a meeting when we call him. Beke works for Quid, a small business specialising in artificial intelligence that has Nasa, Homeland Security, Boston Consulting Group and Walmart among its clients. “Quid was a start-up when I began, but I knew it had huge potential. I was the fifth employee to come and work for them; since then we’ve tripled that number and we have offices in London and New York. It’s moving quickly,” he says. “Until now, AI has been about quantity, but we’re focusing on quality. We’re working on technology that can go through thousands of documents in a few minutes, understand the context and analyse them. We’ve examined the reactions Donald Trump gets on social media, for example – who these reactions come from, who the important influencers are and how positive they are. On that basis, the president isn’t doing badly. For Homeland Security, we worked on the detection of tunnels in the fight against the drugs trade. We investigated which businesses and sectors use tunnels for their activities and the means they use to detect tunnels. AI is not one thing but a collective name for many different applications. Which sort of AI we use depends on the client.”
Philosophy: an underrated field
Beke has come a long way: that’s the very least you can say. He grew up in Brussels and studied philosophy, combining it with business development. “I think philosophy is an underrated field. My mother also studied it. It’s something in which you learn to think abstractly, and that abstract thinking teaches you to communicate more clearly. It’s been very useful to me,” he says. “But you have to combine it with something else, I think, something practical. That’s why I chose business development, also at VUB. It was the time when China was on the cover of Time magazine and was positioning itself as the new big player in the world economy. That’s how I ended up in Beijing.”
A lightning-fast (r)evolution
In Beijing, he did an internship at the European Chamber of Commerce and worked for a private equity company. Then he went to Delhi to work for a consultancy – “I’d had enough of the polluted air in Beijing” – followed by a move to the US. “I’m the son of a diplomat, so as a child I saw a lot of the world. It was perhaps obvious that I would travel the world,” he says. “I’ve been working a little over three and a half years for Quid, but a few days ago I accepted an offer from a start-up, Tonkean, to become vice-president. Tonkean works on robot automation, which will lead to a revolution in AI. It’s about making all the processes in businesses and organisations more efficient. I love new adventures and I’m sure this will be huge.” He plans to stay in Silicon Valley, for the time being at least. “China is increasingly imposing itself in the field of technology, but Silicon Valley is still Mecca for techies. Here you have the best people, from all corners of the world,” he says. “I don’t have a background in AI, but I’m learning. In the US I’ve done extra courses in AI and natural language processing algorithms, which Quid is working on. In this field you can’t stand still. Everything is moving so fast.” [Continue reading below the pictures]
Man versus machine?
Alongside the progress AI is making, there are also concerns about the impact of this technology. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, once called it the greatest existential threat to humanity, because at some point, AI risks becoming smarter than us. Stephen Hawking warned against it, too. Should we fear AI? “If Elon Musk is warning against it, we should all listen,” says Beke. “He’s a very interesting thinker. It’s clear that technology can do things that we can’t. Processing thousands of documents would take humans weeks and weeks; computers need just two minutes. But if you’re talking about defining a strategy, what you need to do with certain information and how you evaluate its emotional value, then you still need humans. AI can’t do that. I also don’t think you can talk about awareness in AI systems. The humanoid robot Sophia, for example, which got lots of attention in the media, is still a very simple technology. Lots of people were scared by the answers that she gave, but you can’t say she is conscious, let alone call her a person. We’re still a long way off that.”
Steering, not over-regulating
Even so, Beke realises that the societal impact of AI is considerable, particularly when it comes to jobs. “All technological progress has its advantages and disadvantages. Robots can create unemployment, but they can also ensure people can do more interesting work. That’s the positive side of the story. You have to ensure that people who lose their jobs in this way have something to replace it. You shouldn’t put technology down and over-regulate it, but instead use it to increase citizens’ happiness. That’s the government’s task. A robot tax is a very good idea, I think. Companies will improve their efficiency and at the same time a tax supports those who lose their jobs.”
AI meets VUB
In the short time he’s been in Silicon Valley, Beke has already built an extensive network of contacts. And recently, more and more Belgians are among them. “I bump into more and more fellow Belgians here in Silicon Valley. People who come here to study, the Belgian Chamber of Commerce or business leaders who come here and want to meet or have a coffee together. I’m happy to see my compatriots and to help them.” On one of those occasions, he met VUB rector Caroline Pauwels in Los Angeles. They spoke about the AI research centre that VUB has just established with data company Collibra, a VUB spin-off and the first Belgian start-up to be worth $1 billion. The aim is to stimulate collaboration with the business world and to make Brussels into a European hub for AI. “I think what VUB is doing is fantastic. I work with Collibra and have also contributed to AI 4 Belgium, the project that aims to stimulate further developments in AI in Belgium,” Beke says. “It’s something that drives the university forward. But it’s important that this project looks at which areas of AI offer the most value for VUB, Brussels and Belgium. What do you want to do with it, what is the focus, what do you want to achieve? These are questions they need to answer. If they do that, it can be a great project.”