AI is core to the next wave of digital transformation. In Kainos we focus on the application of AI, it’s not all about the technology, it is applying the right technology to solve real-world challenges.

We caught up with our new Head of AI, Austin Tanney to discuss his new role and what AI means for Kainos.

Austin has spent the last 20 years working in the commercial sector in a range of companies from start-ups to multinational corporations with a focus on Life Science, Healthcare and Technology. He is also facilitator of the Northern Ireland Artificial Intelligence Collaborative Network and is the co-founder and organiser of the Artificial Intelligence NI community.

Tell us a bit about your background

I am probably an unusual person to have working in Kainos, I’m pretty sure I’m the only molecular biologist or biomedical scientist working in Kainos at the moment. My background is science, I’m a biologist, not a computer scientist. I did my degree in biotechnology, my PHD in biomedical science and spent most of my career working in the pharma and diagnostics industry.

Quite early in my career I started working in genomics and then during my PHD developed an interest in analysing genomic information. To do this you have to use computational analysis, which was basically the advent of big data. This was where I got my first experience in working with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), although at the time we didn’t call it this, it was just bioinformatics and how we did our job. Since then it has been a keen interest for me, I was involved in developing products and solutions in this space so everything we did was driven by machine learning and AI, but ultimately that was what perked my initial interest and I’ve been associated with it ever since.

What characteristics do you think a head of AI should have?

This is an interesting question, as I’ve said when we look at AI or machine learning what I have found really interesting over the years is how transferable it is across sectors. If we look at Kainos’ successful project recently with DVSA to identify fraud, this is an award winning project but ultimately what has been done is anomaly detection, we are identifying anomalies and patterns with the data, which is exactly what we did in genomics. When you’re looking for genetic mutations, you’re looking for anomalies, you’re taking a baseline of information and identifying where things are not the way they should be.

Ultimately I think having a scientific focus makes a big difference, I was giving a Turing talk recently and I was out for dinner with the speakers afterwards. The conversations were very interesting as everyone was from different sectors, but it is clear how translatable this approach is.  One of the things that is really interesting is where AI has gone horribly wrong in organisations. What we tend to see as more people embrace AI, people from various different backgrounds and disciplines, they tend to take an approach of taking a lot of data, throwing it at some algorithms, getting a result and assume it is correct. That’s not a very scientific way to do things, if you’re a data scientist, I would put more emphasis on the scientist piece than the data piece. You can do data engineering, data science, data analysis but what is really different about how to correctly use machine learning and AI is to take a scientific approach and figuring out what is the best way to do things.

To make a good head of AI I think you need to take a scientific approach to things, it’s trying to figure out how to solve problems and trying to get the right answers. One of the other key things is how people communicate this information, whether this is giving public talks or working within the teams, communications is really important. We can’t work in isolation; this is not something that anyone is going to do alone.

Implementation of AI projects extends beyond just experts in AI, if we’re going to build a solution that is based on AI we need team members from across a wide variety of expertise because we’re not just doing analysis on a local computer and coming up with some numbers. We want to build production ready solutions that actually work in the real world and that means looking at things like CI/CD. Do we deploy models? How do we update them? How do we validate them and how do we make sure that they’re available and work.

In your life what choices have been fundamental to your career? Or if you were starting your career today, what would you change?

From a career perspective, no job that I have done in my adult life existed when I was born, I find this really interesting. I have two young kids, they’re 12 and 8 and I have no idea what jobs they are going to do when they grow up, the wold is changing so rapidly.

I was listening to a podcast on my way into work where Sam Harris was talking about what the future looks like as a result of automation. There are a lot of jobs today that are going to look different in the next 5/10/15 years.

We’re going to see AI making significant changes to the way the world works. My career was never really planned, I’ve gone through multiple roles, multiple sectors and I think ultimately critical thinking and problem solving are the key things that are a component of what I did.

The one key thing that we have as humans that I don’t see likely to be automated at any point in the near future is creativity. While it probably seems strange for someone in a data driven job to talk about creativity, the truth is that it takes creativity to figure out how to solve these problems. How to design and balance a study and how you take a scientific approach. I think science and art and creativity are probably a lot more closely linked than people think.

What are your main priorities in your new role at Kainos?

My main priorities here are to make AI a core part of what we do in Kainos. Kainos are extremely good at what they do and when we look to the future of digital transformation, AI is going to become a key component of this moving forward, whether that is public sector, healthcare or private sector. I think we’re going to see more use of AI across the board, so my desire is to help Kainos put AI at the heart of what we do.

In terms of achievements to date, I have been in the role 4 months now and when I joined the organisation we had a strategy in place which has a number of metrics, KPIs etc. that we want to hit and we have exceeded all of these. So I’m happy to say that we’re delivering on what we set out to do, we have a great pipeline of projects across all sectors and I’m really looking forward to delivering more of these working with great people.

Are there any people who have inspired you over the years? Who are they? In what way have they inspired you?

There has been so many people that have influenced and inspired me in the world of science and technology. Probably one of the things I’ve found the most important over the last say 5 years is a podcast from Joe Rogan. He is a very unusual guy, originally known as the presenter of Fear Factor, he is also a stand-up comedian and commentates on mixed martial arts but he has a podcast with a very broad range of guests from quantum physicists and geneticists to actors, musicians, comedians and mixed martial artists.

I also listen to Sam Harris podcast; Sam is a neuro scientist who is also a cultural philosopher but also has a huge interest in AI.
Personally I’m interested in phycology, philosophy, art, neuroscience, physics, martial arts and I love comedy, I think it is important to have a broad perspective on life and by having this we can learn a lot. 

What do you get up to in your spare time?

When I was doing my PHD, there was a tradition that you always put a quote at the start of your thesis. One of the quotes I used way back then has always stuck in my head, it was from an author called GK Chesterton. To tell the truth, I’ve never actually read his work but I came across a fantastic quote from him I liked “one of the most perplexing things in life is that there are far too many interesting things to be properly interested in any of them”.

I love that, I have far too many interests whether it is quantum physics, phycology, philosophy, mixed martial arts, red wine, cheese or food in general. I have a lot of interests but honestly don’t have enough time to properly focus on any of them.

If you were on a desert island what three things would you take with you?

I’m going to be a bit cheeky here and say;   
– A kindle with 20,000 books on it    
– A magical bottle of red wine that never ends    
– Finally, a bow and arrow because archery is really fun but also I have to eat

Who would play you in a movie?

This is a tough one, I’ve never thought about it before.

Maybe Jimmy Nesbitt, I met him once and we hung out at a club, he was good craic, he is a great actor and he knows how to have a good time. He doesn’t look anything like me or in any way vaguely similar in personality but why not.

Want to hear more from Austin? Join our upcoming webinar to see real examples of where AI has made a true impact on organisations.