This week we spend time talking Ai with Vishal Kumar. Vishal is founder and CEO of Tao.ai, an AI-powered platform that enables natural effortless...
Vishal Kumar | Founder and CEO of Tao.AI
[00:00:00] - Vishal Kumar
The whole idea is understanding the business aspect of AI, because if you don't do it right, then you just pretty much take a very good guy who could be actually transforming your organization for good and make him or her just a database delivery boy.
[00:00:28] - Doug Foulkes
Welcome to episode 63 of Chaos & Rocketfuel: The Future of Work Podcast. This is the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future and is brought to you by WNDYR and Pattyrn. As always, I'm with my co-host Claire Haidar, who's the CEO of WNDYR and Pattyrn.
[00:00:45] - Doug Foulkes
Claire, this is the second time that we're talking to Vishal Kumar. He's an AI expert and CEO of Tao.AI. What can we expect from our conversation today?
[00:00:57] - Claire Haidar
One of the most interesting aspects that we explored with Vishal in this episode was specifically around AI, not just as some technological concept pie in the sky, but very much an actual coworker next to an employee inside a company. As you can imagine, that took us down some really interesting discussion points, which I think are really important for not only the HR community, but C-level executives to really be considering in work today because we are definitely entering an era where AI should be seen as an addition to the workforce rather than just a technological add-on.
[00:01:46] - Doug Foulkes
Let's join Vishal now and hear what he's got to say.
[00:01:50] - Claire Haidar
We're really going to narrow in on people teams, chief people officers, VPs of HR, et cetera, and how they need to be preparing for AI at work, because a lot of companies specifically in the people area haven't in any way actually introduced us yet. Maybe a little bit in recruitment, as you've mentioned. But in terms of it being pervasive across people departments, that definitely isn't at that stage yet.
[00:02:19] - Claire Haidar
If you look to date how companies have operated operations and the people function were very separate. Pandemic happens, all of a sudden, we hit with this new reality, and we realize that operations and people as two functions have to be way more intertwined with each other than they ever have been before. Talk to us specifically about how those two functions in business need to be upskilling themselves. Forget about the actual AI before it even comes into their workflows and stuff like that. Where do they, as leaders, need to be upskilling themselves in this area before they start introducing it into the business?
[00:03:03] - Vishal Kumar
I think this is such a huge opportunity for people leader. Because as a technologist, you understand these things very clearly. When you talk to this HR leaders struggling, you understand maybe the technology has overinvest their way of thinking or it's super under that they're just too on the fence to figure out what to do. When you said, "Okay, what are the benchmarks you should think about?"
[00:03:31] - Vishal Kumar
I think the Hidden Life of Trees comes right in the center because you have to understand the hidden connections between workers, the ecosystems, the technology ecosystems, the AI ecosystem that's bringing into the ecosystems. I have this super weird practice within my company that every quarter, I have all of my technology folks read about human history, basically psychology, and we picked some random book. Every quarter, we have this book meeting after three months because I want technologies to understand how the human psychology work, how the humans have evolved.
[00:04:10] - Vishal Kumar
Because right now, we are seeing variety of changes. Technology is getting super matured. We have so much good tools out there. Now when you're operating under these new conditions and under this new framework, how do you as a people leader, think about what to do? Many of these playbooks have already been answered either in the nature or in the history.
[00:04:33] - Vishal Kumar
There's a very famous book Guns, Germs, and Steel. They said all the major changes that happen in the history are around the germs, guns, and steel. Luckily, we have the pandemic follow later on. Then we are seeing again that germs things kicking in. Now that's a huge plus that, we, can leaders could learn from.
[00:04:55] - Vishal Kumar
I think drop everything, maybe pick Hidden Life of Trees. That's a great starting point. Maybe there are very interesting books around history of how human mankind have evolved, and that holds a lot of interesting golden gem. By the way, full disclosure, whenever I meet CHRO or CPO, I give one of these weird books to them, and I beg them to read it.
[00:05:20] - Claire Haidar
To read it.
[00:05:22] - Vishal Kumar
I can preach AI to them all they want. I said, "But you have to do me a favor, be human first, because my job is to geek you out. It's your job to stop me from doing that."
[00:05:34] - Claire Haidar
Just for a little bit of context for our audience, and Doug, even for you, because you were part of that conversation with Vishal, one of Vishal's closing questions for me was a book that I've recently read. He was very surprised when I gave The Secret Life of Trees because he was expecting a business book, not a book on ecology.
[00:05:55] - Claire Haidar
But the reason why to the exact point that Vishal has just made, why it is actually such a profound business book and actually a book that I recommend every business leader out there read is because it explains how the entire root function. The title of the book, The Secret Life of Trees, is essentially a description of the entire root system that's happening underneath the soil. We think of trees, and we think of the trunk, and the leaves, and everything that we see, but what's actually the main function that trees are contributing to the world is actually happening in an invisible format underneath the soil that we can't see.
[00:06:37] - Claire Haidar
That's where trees communicate with each other. It's where they essentially play the function of hospital and doctor to one another. They consult with one another. All of the basic functions that we understand to be human functions, trees actually undergo very similar functions at that root level, and it's incredible.
[00:06:56] - Claire Haidar
To Vishal's point, the reason why it's such a powerful book is because it helps you to understand how companies, and teams, and humans in work function when you are able to take that step out and look at it through the ecosystem of trees. Vishal, what I really like about the response that you've just given to the question that I asked is I was totally expecting you to say, "You should read up about this on AI and you should read up about this on AI."
[00:07:27] - Claire Haidar
Again, you surprise us and you tell us, "No, as HR people, don't try and become technologists. Allow the technologists to be technologists. Bring your human side to the table because it's the human side that's actually lacking." I love that. I really, really like that.
[00:07:49] - Doug Foulkes
I'm going to chirp in here because not 100 miles away from what you're talking about, Vishal, we're talking about recruiters and human resources. Is there going to be a time that you can see that people teams are going to be recruiting AI team members?
[00:08:05] - Vishal Kumar
I hope so. I think it still has its value, not in its current form. By the way, I think this is, in most of our conversations with businesses when we talk about their use cases of AI, it's basically in many ways in a different direction. I can give you one conversation I had this pretty huge bank, one of the largest bank in the world, and I was talking to the HR's chief data officer.
[00:08:34] - Vishal Kumar
I was fascinated with the conversation. I said, "Man, you hold the biggest bank. It recruits some of the smartest folks. You are the analytics engine of the society. Tell me, how are you making your workers' life better?" This gentleman said, "Vishal, I don't know what you're talking about. That's not my job."
[00:08:53] - Vishal Kumar
I said, "Okay, then what's your job?" He said, "HR comes to me with some data. I give them data. They are happy. I'm happy."
[00:08:59] - Vishal Kumar
I said, "But how are you human? I understand you're a technologist, but you are the folk who will make the businesses understand what data is. You are the storyteller from the data that I'm expecting to hear from. You are the shoulder that probably I'll cry when I say 15% people left or 18% people left, and maybe I don't deserve to have such a bad company."
[00:09:25] - Vishal Kumar
Then he said, "That's my struggle. That is where I am having massive conflicts on and how people are using these individuals." Now that means that the whole idea is understanding the business aspect of AI, because if you don't do it right, then you just pretty much take a very good guy who could be actually transforming your organization for good and make him or her just a database delivery boy in a very crude terms, which is not good use of his time, not an organization.
[00:10:05] - Vishal Kumar
That's why I think I'm a particular fan of new companies. They already are coming with this pre-panic. They're having sleepless nights about these scenarios, what AI is bringing in. My other plea to all the businesses, obviously, it's a self-serving plea, but the other plea is give a small guy, a new guy a shot at some portion, because you will learn a lot that many bigger businesses who are deeply intertwined in your operations might not deliver that much value.
[00:10:35] - Claire Haidar
Vishal, I just want to make sure that I'm understanding you, because you're one of those highly intelligent human beings, and I need to make sure that I understand all the layers that you're actually referring to here. Coming back to Doug's specific question around, will we actually be recruiting AI itself? Will AI take the form of a companion colleague in the office? Is that a reality that we're going to be facing?
[00:11:08] - Vishal Kumar
Yes. That's a very short answer, yes, because eventually... But the AI needs to be more human. The AI needs to understand because it's dealing with humans. Because today, our human brains are very close to where we want the AI to be.
[00:11:24] - Vishal Kumar
As a species, we have evolved through so many extinction events or so many transformative events throughout our lives. We have learned to be not a caveman. We have learned to farm together. We have learned to hunt together. Now we have learned to create together. There's a pretty hefty basically element of empathy, collaboration.
[00:11:46] - Claire Haidar
Yes, like the humanization. Okay, so this is why I'm asking the question, because I wanted to clarify that and make sure I understand that. Using the examples that you gave of all of these evolutionary cycles that humans have been through, how long do you think it's going to take AI to go through those same evolutionary cycles before we will be able to actually recruit them as colleagues into our workforces? It seems a little bit scary because if we have to wait for AI to go through all the evolutionary cycles that we as humans have, we're going to have some pretty serious issues as humans and AI conflict until they've evolved.
[00:12:29] - Vishal Kumar
That's for all of us to figure out. I think that's all of us are figuring it out. This is very philosophical conversation as well, because I think one of the things that... Economists are also part of this conversation, because how the businesses are designed today, they're not designed to appreciate happiness. They're designed to appreciate profitability. Profitability, many times, are equipped to productivity.
[00:12:55] - Vishal Kumar
That's why over the last five years, all the major CEOs from major organizations are stepping out saying, "Okay, we need to take a pause and rethink about the future of organizations." If you are, say, one of those Fortune 500 company that is still not updated, you need to understand basically how to do it effectively, so it empathize, it creates those bubbles. We can recruit those AIS, but obviously, it's still a bridge a bit far that we need to travel.
[00:13:25] - Claire Haidar
A bit far? Yeah. Vishal, you've already alluded to Tao, which I'm very happy about because this is exactly why we brought you onto this podcast is this is something that you live and breathe every single day. You're actually helping companies with your teams to implement AI, to improve AI, to create better outcomes for the business, but also for the people in the business. Tell us a little bit about Tao, and most importantly, tell us where the name comes from. I'd really like to understand the history of the business.
[00:13:58] - Claire Haidar
Why did it start? What was the problem that you saw, and what irritated you so much about that problem that you were like, "I need to solve this today," and then how did the name come about?
[00:14:11] - Vishal Kumar
Basically, what Tao is envisioned to do, the idea came from a very interesting meeting. I have a very close friend. He was a chief architect at a premium organization, a Fortune 50 organization, and he was let go. He was a best speech analytics guy that you can find. He was rewarded, I think, for the last five years, the Best Engineer of the Year Award.
[00:14:36] - Vishal Kumar
He said, "Vishal, can you find me a gig?" I just took his resume, and there's a company locally here that do speech analytics, the most successful company in the speech analytics space. I said, "Get this guy. He's amazing." This company rewarded this guy for five years heaven.
[00:14:50] - Vishal Kumar
This guy took this gentleman's resume and he said, "He's obsolete." I said, "What do you mean by obsolete?" "The technology is working on is 1980s, blah, blah, blah," and I started hearing all the gibberish things. Then it suddenly dawned on me, I started talking to him and he said, "Vishal, should I sue the company I'm working because they give me Employee of the Year, Best Architect of the Year Award. They're protecting me in this interesting bubble, and now my computer is saying I'm obsolete."
[00:15:19] - Vishal Kumar
That opened a canned of worms. Because when we are building Analytics Week as an analytics organization, we always feel how businesses want analytics to be delivered. We always feel those kinds of queries. Every now and then, we used to file some guys struggling to learn AI. But we never connected the dot that, "Hey, where are you coming from? Maybe you're not an AI guy, that's why you're struggling."
[00:15:40] - Vishal Kumar
Then we started realizing, so this guy was 55 or so, and companies have this interesting way to not empower them after an age. There's an ageism going on with the organizations. Then I started digging into it. We hired one of our research company and said, okay, let's focus on the impact of these working population, because it appears to be I never connected the dots. I can smell it from the conversation, but I never connected to the reason that's going on."
[00:16:12] - Vishal Kumar
Then we realize, "Whoa, we have such a massive belt of experienced professionals that enterprise are not designed to address. That was a very initial route of the AI Tao came from that can we connect these individuals together so at least they can help each other out and do whatever? Then when we started talking to businesses, we realize it's a bigger problem. All the leaders are panicking about this.
[00:16:40] - Vishal Kumar
They are functioning brain. They are very creative fellows. They have wisdom with them. They are the most sophisticated AI at a very cheap price that you can buy today, but you have no role for them. They're sliding out.
[00:16:52] - Vishal Kumar
That became sort of an outcry. But then when the pandemic hits, my team revolted. My team said, "We're not going to work for you, Vishal, if you're not going to be serious about this issue, because now it's a mental health issue, our ability to not understand our fellow workers. It's a serious issue as an organization if we talk about tools." We said, but I'm happy where we are."
[00:17:15] - Vishal Kumar
We end up recruiting tools that are available in the market. We are success factors. We hire a lot of these interesting tools. We start playing with it. It's still pretty rudimentary when it comes to what it can do. I ask them questions, they answer. But if I don't know what to ask, I'm out of luck.
[00:17:36] - Vishal Kumar
Then I started investing in this idea of AI is powerful. Eighty percent of my team is super rock stars in AI, designing AI, advanced analytics. We said, "Can we use these individuals? They're weirdos." That's when we started this culture of throwing books at them, saying, "Read about culture and see what comes to your mind."
[00:17:56] - Vishal Kumar
Then we started building this tool that basically be like a work OS at some point, where it can understand worker and understand... That is the confusing root of Tao, where it comes from. The name, that's another weird story. I thought it's a clever... I want to call it talent and organizations. We are bringing talent and organizations.
[00:18:22] - Vishal Kumar
Okay, short, someone says, Tao. But then I met a monk, and he said, "Vishal, what the." I said, "What happened?" He said, "You know what Taoism is?" I said, "I have no clue." Once I start reading it, I said, we are Tao, like some God gave us this, whatever."
[00:18:44] - Vishal Kumar
But yeah, it's an accidental Tao. But actually, we are bringing Taoism in a very weird way. We're not religious, but yeah.
[00:18:54] - Claire Haidar
[00:18:57] - Doug Foulkes
That alternative explanation of Tao brings us to the end of part 2 of our conversation with Vishal Kumar. If you missed the first part of our conversation with Vishal, check it out on Spotify, Google, or Apple podcasts, OR on WNDYR's website, W-N-D-Y-R.com. We'll conclude our chat shortly. But from Claire and myself, for now, we'll see you soon.