Abigail Hing Wen is the data-centric tech evangelist and AI podcast host for Intel. Beside her work at Intel, she has multiple identities: a lawyer in venture capital, a leader in emerging AI tech, a New York Times bestseller novelist, a wife and a mother of two. One of her novels, "Loveboat, Taipei," drew from her experience participating in a youth camp in Taiwan more than 20 years ago, and is now being adapted into a Hollywood film.
During her recent stay in Taipei as a guest speaker at Anchor Taiwan's "Women in Venture Roundtable," Digitimes had the opportunity to talk to her about her career changes, the prospects of AI, and the potential of Taiwan to become a hotbed for startups.
Q: You have been very successful in your career path as a lawyer, but what made you decide to transition into a venture capitalist?
A: I started off practicing law in Washington, DC, working for the government. Washington DC is a one-industry town, the practice of law. But my husband was working in technology, he would come to the party, talking about all the latest technology, and everyone thought he was so nerdy. He had always wanted to work in the Silicon Valley, but as soon as we got married, he went with me to New York so I could finish law school, and then to DC, so I could clerk in the DC Circuit. So it was kind of my turn (to sacrifice), and it was a hard move for me. DC was my town as a lawyer, but Silicon Valley is also a one-industry town, his town. My husband is working for Google now. After giving birth to my second child, I stayed home taking care of my kids for three years, and I wrote two novels during that time. After that, I decided I need to go back to law, to continue my training. Because Silicon Valley's bread and butter is technology, I went into venture-capital law. The opportunity came very quickly, I went to the company and loved it. Very soon I out-grew my legal job, the work itself is very easy for me, I closed so many deals very fast. There was one year we counted the number of cases and mine was twice as many as my colleagues'. So I thought, I really need to do something else, because I felt I needed to be challenged more. I started moving more towards the business side of things. Three years ago, I connected with an artificial intelligence (AI) company that Intel acquired for US$400 million. They were building a business unit at Intel, for artificial intelligence. And I joined the office of the CTO in a business role focused on incubating new technologies within a company, versus a venture capitalist investing in tech outside of a company.
Q: So how do you structure your portfolio? Do you decide specifically to focus on machine learning, or natural language processing, etc?
A: Intel invests very broadly. Its mandate has shifted over the years from strategic to financial investment in startups. As a strategic investor, you want to go ahead of the curve to invest in a company, and think about, where should the company be technology-wise in the next 5-10 years. I specifically asked to do AI work, because I have been interested in that and actually have been writing about it in my novels. I really think it's one of the technologies that changes our future. And I want to be part of that.
In terms of what we invest in, it depends on whether we are a strategic or financial investor and what's the best for the company in that space. I worked with Andrew Ng's company, Landing.ai, which is in manufacturing, and we have another one called Datarobot. And there are some startups on the human-resources side in the portfolio. We have another startup venture which was just acquired, focused on denoising speech.
You meet so many entrepreneurs, and we have a lot of investors who are constantly cultivating relationships with entrepreneurs. They bring in whatever looks interesting from a financial investor's point of view. AI, for Intel, has some advantage as accelerator. Intel is so big, and so diverse, so it is often driven by interests within the company. In my CTO team, one area we focused on was privacy-preserve machine-learning technologies. Because the future in AI is data, we want to make sure data is processed in a way that protects your privacy, and make technologies that comply with regulations. It is a nexus that combines my legal background and my work with technology.
Q: You mentioned you need to look 5-10 years ahead as a strategist. What are the AI technologies that are going to change the way we work, the way we live?
A: In my podcast, I interviewed Andrew Ng, who said he tried to find one sector that would not be affected by AI, but he could not. They thought maybe haircuts would not be affected, but actually even haircuts would be disrupted. All of it, everything is going to change. We are already using AI in our cellphones, our home devices. They collect big data in order to analyze trends, across all sectors, including finances, healthcare, etc. AI will accelerate our research in so many different fields. I personally am very interested in the intersections of these technologies, like natural language processing with computer vision, recognition, recommendations. I can actually pull them together on the entertainment side. I am thinking about film tech. But that's more likely to be a 5-year plan, still very early.
I have a friend who is doing virtual models. I am fascinated to see how she moves from still images to video. Over time I am excited to see when we can create virtual videos using AI technologies. Right now we do animation, which is like analog in comparison. But we are moving toward virtual humans. Digital Domain and Facebook are just a few companies working on it. That's the holy grail of that space. But we are still at very early stages.
I was a beta tester of OpenAI's GPT-3 language model, which is one of the largest language models in existence now. Actually I played off it a bit when I was writing my second book. What I did was putting into a few sentences that I was thinking about writing. It was able to generate text by predicting the next word and the sequences, given all the words that came before it. It is pretty good: it's cogent, the grammar is good, tone actually matches the tone I put into it. If I put in "wealthy family, succession story", it kind of develops a generic story around that. It is useful to me, because it shows me this is how the generic writer might write, so I am not going to write that. But that also reminds me what else I need to include in my own book. There are a number of startups that are springing up around GPT-3, and I think that's going to be very exciting to see what those applications are.
Q: But as a writer, are you worried that the AI robots will replace you?
A: No, not at all. When I interviewed Jerome Pesenti, the VP of Facebook AI Research, we discussed this topic about AI and creativity. AI is just a tool to enable us to make better art. It's like a camera, which doesn't replace watercolors. Those are two different mediums, but there might be more photographers than watercolorists now. And I think AI is going to be a tool for all art creators. And AI art is being generated out there. Art is like a two-way street. There is the creator and there is the consumer. And the consumer completes the artistic experience. They bring their own experiences to bear. So when people look at a piece of AI-generated art and see meaning in it is because of the experiences they are bringing. The human creativity is what distinguishes us from artificial intelligence, and that is going to be difficult to ever be replaced.
Q: You are a podcast host and also an AI evangelist for Intel. We all know that Intel is a B2B semiconductor company. Why does Intel feel it's so important to have an evangelist writing articles and using podcast as a medium to communicate to the public about AI?
A: This is me speaking on my own, not representing the company. The vision of the podcast is to help build our thought leadership. We have so many brilliant, incredible scientists and researchers of artificial intelligence at Intel. But they are not very visible. People don't naturally think of Intel as an AI company, because it focuses on the underlying chips. But on AI-related issues like ethics, we do have things to say. I love that platform of Intel, because it's agnostic, it doesn't have an agenda to drive AI, the way that some companies might. That gives me a little bit of flexibility to explore a number of topics. The podcast's emphasis is on a C-suite audience and what I call an "NPR" (National Public Radio) audience. They are smart, informed people who may not know too much about artificial intelligence. But I want to make it accessible to them.
And part of the vision is that, I do think AI is going to transform the world. I want as many people as possible to know what is going on. That transparency is actually helpful to build trust in technology.
Q: How does Intel create synergy with AI in its products?
A: There are many cool technologies, but a lot of them are still in the labs. If we look at the investments Intel has in AI technologies, that would be a good indicator of what they are possibly exploring. And there are a lot of companies that are using Intel chips as the base of their AI, or deep-learning applications. But there are always interesting projects that are incubated around AI. And with the maturity of the technology, there will be more demand for chips and computing power. As Andrew Ng puts it, the "appetite for computing power from the AI revolution is infinite."
Q: Earlier you mentioned that the number of companies in Intel's startup investment portfolio has decreased from more than 1,200 to 400+, what was the lesson learned to make that dramatic change?
A: No, no, it's more like exits, rather than lesson learned. We had lots of exits over the years - companies get acquired, sometimes they closed. In the startup ecosystem, as a general rule, most startups will fail; but as an investor, you want to make the best bets you can and help the startup company to be successful. The portfolio has gone up and down over the years, usually due to IPO, M&A, or the company folding.
Q: But why the turn to financial investment from strategic?
A: That's a corporate decision. People recognize that corporate venture capital (CVC) can bring to bear the weight of their expertise, but it does sometimes limit you to companies that have some kind of ties to the larger parent company, like Intel. And the very ambitious investors all want the best deals. You have more options as a financial investor, rather than just strategic.
Q: As an investor, do you see Taiwan as a potential hotbed for AI startups in the next 5-10 years?
A: I am already very impressed with the tech sphere here. With COVID-19, there are so many COVID refugees coming all over the world to Taiwan. That's an incredible opportunity to create a branch hub for innovation. The universities here are fantastic. Taiwan has almost all the ingredients except for one key thing, which is the uptake for risk, being willing to take big bets, smart bets, but make that seem ok to failure. As I said, not all of Intel's huge portfolio all wins. But that is part of the way you get to your wins.
(Editor's note: The Women in Venture series is a collaboration with Digitimes' strategic partner Anchor Taiwan, a platform to connect the world with Taiwan focusing on corporate innovation and cross-border expansion. The Women in Venture Roundtable is a network of 80+ female investors and bi-monthly sessions featuring world-class guest speakers. More info: Anchor Taiwan. For the podcast, see Spotify, Apple Podcast or Soundcloud: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0Dy6TKKLIazz8oaCW0oiiE.)
Abigail Hing Wen, data-centric tech evangelist and AI podcast host for Intel
Photo: Micahel Lee, Digitimes, September 2020