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Q&A: ABBYY CEO Ulf Persson Talks Artificial Intelligence Tech

ABBYY CEO Ulf Persson talk about the challenges and misconceptions of integrating artificial intelligence tech and the importance of R&D.
ABBYY CEO Ulf Persson.

Ulf Persson is CEO of ABBYY Group, a leading global provider of document recognition, content capture and language-based tech solutions. He is also a co-founder and managing partner of Mint Capital and joined ABBYY’s board of directors in 2002, serving as chairman for two years prior to being named CEO in 2017.

Persson has also held a variety of executive and non-executive positions with technology and service companies over the past 15 years, and Chief Executive asked him about the challenges and misconceptions of integrating artificial intelligence tech, the importance of R&D to his organization and what he’s most excited for in the year ahead.

Q: What are the top three priority areas for deploying AI within an organization?

A: Digital transformation is a priority for most CEOs. They need to make their companies more competitive by optimizing processes and operations, while providing customers with better experiences and personalized services. Digital transformation is all about using information in new ways. Artificial Intelligence capabilities provide enablement for many of these DT processes. I think that’s an important distinction.

At ABBYY, we provide solutions that allow organizations to automate the transformation of unstructured content into actionable, structured, intelligent content. This involves different aspects of AI. I will give a few examples of what that means in practice.

  1. An important use case where Digital Transformation is uprooting old processes is customer onboarding, for example, when opening a new bank account and applying for credit cards or mortgage loans, the applicant is asked to provide a number of documents such as ID, employment details and proof of address. With the help of intelligent capture and classification this can be done with the help of a smartphone and extracted data can be processed by the bank’s own systems. This saves time and money for both the bank and the applicant. Once a customer, other systems can track and learn from this customer’s behavior to offer tailored services specific to each customer based on their credit history, lifestyle and health from pulling publicly available information and cross-referencing it with the products and services they can offer.
  2. Another area where AI capabilities have changed the landscape is automating repetitive tasks or processes – often called Robotic Process Automation. By automating workflows and learning from human intervention on-the-go, RPA allows knowledge workers to focus on addressing exceptions or solving problems with the use of graphical dashboards.
  3. A third example of AI application is when a system can learn to understand, find, extract and provide insights from unstructured documents, such as commercial agreements. This is a topical area in light of data protection rules where enterprises need to process vast amounts of documents to control and mitigate compliance risk.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding AI and what it can or can’t do for businesses?

A: I guess there are quite a few of them. One is that many executives feel they need to “invest in AI” without properly defining the problem they are trying to solve. AI technology needs to be applied to create solutions, it is not in itself a cure for all or any problems. Another one is the timeline. We are just at the very beginning of the advent of Artificial Intelligence. What we can see and know today is most likely just a fraction of the possibilities AI will create in the future.

“As the CEO of ABBYY, my task is to lead the company in a tremendously interesting situation where our market is evolving before our eyes.”

In that light, it is probably more prudent from an executive point of view to focus on the problems at hand and available solutions, which will increasingly comprise AI technology. The key from a top management perspective is to be open-minded and have technology-savvy visionaries who can help drive and manage the change. There is no doubt that technology development drives seismic change and you are either on that train or not.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges for AI moving forward?

 A: Every time you see a newly emerging major technology drive change it takes some iterations before a killer application is found. One reason is that change in customer behavior takes time – a good example is how long it took before the newspapers and readers found a paid-for-content model that is good for both. AI will bring capabilities that go well beyond today’s wildest imagination. In our industry it has and will continue to broaden the scope of what we have traditionally been doing – capture documents for systems of record.

With AI, capture moves to the point of origination and real-time (e.g. customer onboarding) and we can process more complex documents. For enterprises, the challenge will be to find valuable AI-enabled solutions to real problems – which oftentimes will cut right through to the core of what they are doing – so change management will be necessary. For vendors who include AI in their capabilities, the challenge will be to come up with products or solutions that add enough value. Many will fail. For us humans there, will be so many questions concerning responsibility (driverless cars), privacy (there is a Big Brother in many of our homes already) and control (2001 – A Space Odyssey) which we are ill-prepared for right now.

Q: Tell us about the importance of investing in R&D for ABBYY.

A: ABBYY has been a pioneer in developing capture and language-based technologies for nearly 30 years. Data from computers, smartphones, the internet and in the cloud is exploding and the ability to capture, have context of information and then make the information actionable will be critical to the success of businesses and this is why ABBYY continuously invests a significant percentage of our revenue in R&D, and of the nearly 1,000 employees we employ worldwide, a majority work in R&D. ABBYY has been using AI/ML technologies long before it became a hype, but the advance over the last few years allow us to expand our capabilities.

Q: As CEO, what are you most excited about in the year ahead?

 A: We are in an exciting place with massive opportunities in the digital transformation market. The RPA market in itself is growing by leaps and bounds. Corporate CEOs are ready to invest in AI capabilities, and we’re well-positioned right now to capitalize on these opportunities.

As the CEO of ABBYY, my task is to lead the company in a tremendously interesting situation where our market is evolving before our eyes. In this environment we need to proactively change ourselves to not only keep up but to lead. Change requires conviction (that we are doing the right thing), clarity (as to why we are doing it), commitment, and communication.

This is my focus: to make sure we make the right decisions, to explain and provide clarity, to show my own and secure the team’s commitment and, finally, to communicate. The latter means both ways. I need to listen as much and as I speak. I enjoy leading the process of setting goals and then drive the company towards those goals.


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