Five Questions For … Manoj Saxena, AI Investor & Ex-IBM Watson Chief

Austin—Humanity is entering the age of homo digitalis.

That’s the view of Manoj Saxena, the former general manager of IBM’s Watson Solutions in Austin, TX, and now a venture capitalist who focuses on artificial intelligence startups. The way he sees it, technological advances in machine learning and virtual reality can be combined to create a new environment in which we interact with data. The world becomes your touch screen. (“Homo Digitalis” is also the name of a book that speaks of similar issues, by Natasha Friis Saxberg.)

“Just like the industrial age amplified our arms and legs, AI will amplify our brains to do more to make good use of the resources we have on this planet,” Saxena says.

This “amplified brain” made possible by technological innovation can help to solve big problems around climate change, how we use the world’s scarce resources, and how to provide equal opportunity for economic growth throughout societies, he says.

Nurturing startups that might help bring about these solutions are his focus as managing director with Silicon Valley-based The Entrepreneur Fund, where he focuses on cognitive computing startups.

Saxena isn’t only focused on the virtual world, however. An avid racecar fan and owner of Saxena Racing, he has raced in a 2009 Porsche 911 GT3RS and a “rally prepped” 1971 Datsun 240z on five continents.

For our latest installment of “Five Questions For … ,” Saxena speaks about the limitations of youth versus age, the art of listening, and the meditative powers of racecar driving. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: What leadership lessons have you learned from your children?

Manoj Saxena: The first one is remember to be interested in what they’re interested in, and not trying to get them into what you’re interested in. Good leaders first seek to understand the perspectives of the people they work with, their view of the world, hopes and fears. Then you can start seeding in your own point of view and story. First, seek to understand. That’s number one.

The other part is that the best form of learning and insight sometimes comes from them teaching you rather than you assuming you know how the world works. As a leader, you are leading people across the whole age group, people in their 40s, 50s, 60s. You also have some interns, entry-level college folks in their early 20s. Too often in rapidly changing workforces, we don’t understand fully how this generation sees the world. Good leadership starts with good listening.

X: How do your experiences in the racing world … Next Page »

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Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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