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Fri 15 Mar 2019 01:37 AM

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Hewlett Packard's Antonio Neri: the robots are coming

Hewlett Packard Enterprise president and CEO Antonio Neri tells Arabian Business the robots are coming and it's going to be just fine

Hewlett Packard's Antonio Neri: the robots are coming
Technology has the ability to power societal improvements, says Neri

To say that the latest head honcho of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) has a rather big job on his hands would be an understatement.

But Argentinian Antonio Neri is not too worried – he’s got a whole new generation of robots to help him out.

“AI augments human capabilities… the role of artificial intelligence (AI) is to make it easier for us to make the right decisions,” the 52-year-old tech veteran tells Arabian Business.

Neri has placed AI right at the heart of the tech giant’s journey into the future. And so far, the CEO’s brave punt on robotics is paying off.

You have to remember that only a handful of companies are making big investments in AI today. We have the expertise to make AI happen – fast

“Our strategy is to be the trusted, global partner enterprises need to navigate this fast-changing field and realise the promise of AI and data analytics everywhere, from the edge to cloud to data centre,” Neri explains.

“You can see from our recent results that this strategy is working. I meet with hundreds of customers a year and this strategy resonates. You have to remember that only a handful of companies are making big investments in AI today,” the CEO says. “We have the expertise to make AI happen – fast.”

Taking HPE into the future is not a job for the faint-hearted – no matter how many robots you have at your side. The company, worth $22.3bn, has seen six CEOs in less than two decades.

HP founders Bill Hewlett (left) and Dave Packard visiting the company’s manufacturing facility in 1963

But Neri is used to hard graft – he began his career at HP answering the phones at the Holland support centre 23 years ago. More recently, he worked ‘hand in hand’ with former CEO Meg Whitman on one of the trickiest – and seismic – splits in US corporate history. Whitman split in two Hewlett Packard – a $110bn global company with 330,000 staff – creating HP Inc, a PC and printer business, and HPE, which specialises in cloud and servers.

Choppy waters

Today, Neri is the helmsman tasked with charting HPE through choppy waters as cloud services newcomers Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services muscle in on traditional server territory. Spending on data centres – HPE’s bread and butter – is expanding at a sluggish pace.

Put simply, Neri needs to get his skates on.

Our strategy is to be the trusted, global partner enterprises need to navigate this fast-changing field

HP was the original Silicon Valley start-up. It was founded in 1939, when William Hewlett and Dave Packard started making audio oscillators in a garage in Palo Alto. The pair emphasised the importance of a working philosophy, with values enshrined in the HP Way of management. Today HPE is ranked 107th on the 2018 Fortune 500 list and HP Inc is the world’s second largest printer seller.

Inside man

Neri has broken ground by being one of the few CEOs in recent years to have been promoted from inside the business. The Argentinian represents a change of tack for the US behemoth – Neri is a technology man and HPE is going back to its technology roots. Neri, who speaks four languages and is a professor of drawing and painting, started climbing the ladder, working in the PC, printer and infrastructure divisions, before running the ‘enterprise’ part of the business, which focused on services rather than physical products.

HPE reported $7.9bn in net revenue in the fourth quarter of 2018

Neri played a key role in sharpening HPE’s focus after the historic split with HP Inc in 2015. A key part of the HPE strategy is Neri’s Next Initiative, which positions the company as a hybrid IT-intelligent edge powerhouse, with a strong focus on ‘edge’ technology which keeps data closer to the device than cloud.

On the edge

HPE hopes that the rise of web-connected devices, such as factory machinery and elevators that are tethered to the internet, will result in more companies processing information at the assembly line or on the machines themselves, instead of sending the data off to the their in-house data centres and those of cloud giants.

Since taking the helm of the company in February 2018, Neri has accelerated the ‘Next’ drive to capture innovation with the acquisition of three companies: Plexxi, a software-defined virtualisation networking fabric provider; Cape Networks, an AI network analytics provider; and Red Pixie, a cloud consulting company that specialises in Microsoft Azure.

Many of today’s AI models are ‘black boxes’. We know they work, but we don’t know what’s going on inside

“To me this is going to be the competitive advantage that HPE will have going forward,” says Neri. “For me this is not just a way to return shareholder value but really to improve the way we execute our business every single day.”

Holding on

So far the strategy is working. HPE’s 2018 revenues of $30.9bn were up 7 percent from $28.9bn the previous year. Net income of $2bn was up from $400m in 2017. Hybrid IT revenue was $25bn, up 6 percent year over year and Intelligent Edge revenue was $2.9bn for the year, a 13 percent improvement.

“As we close my first fiscal year as CEO, I am incredibly proud of where we stand in the marketplace and of our innovative culture,” Neri said at the time. “In 2019, I have great confidence that our experienced global team and proven strategy will accelerate what comes next for our customers from edge to cloud.”

Technology has the ability to power societal improvements, says Neri

“This is rearchitecting the company to deliver on our vision and strategy,” he added. “At the core of this is not just cost savings. It is all about simplification, innovation and execution.”

The dawn of AI

HPE’s technology is already helping to usher in AI and automation. But management consultants PwC have predicted that nearly 30 percent of jobs could be wiped out by AI and robots over the next 30 years. How does this sit with Neri?

He says: “It’s important to look at everything in terms of the near, medium, and long term. In the near term, there will be job loss. But in the medium and long term, I believe you will see AI acting to augment human labour, not replace it.”

Neri adds: “Look at past decades, look at the industrial revolutions we’ve gone through, from the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century to today’s automation. We have seen people upscaling and specialising in reaction to the changes they experience.

The diversity of people in terms of ethnicity and gender is important but so is skills diversity

“To understand how AI will affect society, it’s important to look back at long-term trends. The Industrial Revolution, for instance, eventually wound up reducing an 80-hour work week to 40.”

Neri offers an example: “We recently met with the leaders of a company that had grown to a point where they used 10,000 robots in the manufacturing process.

“This is a highly mechanised, highly automated workspace, but perhaps unexpectedly, as they grew their use of robots, they didn’t lay people off. They hired more to supervise.”

AI fears

Neri makes the future sound breezy, but contrary to the sage warnings from the world’s finest tech minds, such as Tesla’s Elon Musk, who warn that AI could be more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

HPE is creating a roadmap for a secure and efficient AI applications

Just a few months ago, Musk told Vox magazine: “AI will probably get much smarter than humans – the relative intelligence ratio is probably similar to that between a person and a cat, maybe bigger. We need to be very careful.”

Neri says AI is a ‘very active’ field of research across the globe. “Many of today’s AI models are ‘black boxes’. We know they work, but we don’t know what’s going on inside. Our job as an industry, is to work out the precise differences between how machines make decisions and how humans do so,” he says.

The CEO insists an AI model is only as good as the examples used to train it.

“If that data contains bias, so will the model, and so will the AI operations. We want to broaden the diversity of people involved in AI training to help identify and correct unconscious biases,” he says.

Neri led the strategy, development and introduction of many breakthrough innovations at the company

“The diversity of people in terms of ethnicity and gender is important but so is skills diversity, which we can do by making it easier for non-experts to be involved. The more eyes on the data and the results, the better the data. Bias mitigation will make sure you have good AI before you act on its decisions.”

So when does Neri think the robots will become smarter than humans?

“We’re safe for the foreseeable future,” he says. “We’ll be training AIs to augment our capabilities in all the ways we’ve talked about. But it is possible to use AI to train humans to do their jobs better, improving productivity and efficiency through observation, training and feedback. We are already seeing glimpses of this today across numerous industries and applications.

“Workers can become more precise in production lines, improving output while reducing repetitive strain, doctors can be more effective in diagnosis and treatment, athletes can overcome limitations that even their coaches might not catch and remedy.”

Manufacturing is one of the key industries that could benefit from AI

The problem is most companies ‘don’t know where to start with AI’, Neri says.

“Customers need the right infrastructure, more efficient computing and data architectures and the services to integrate everything for fast results.”

In the coming years, all eyes will be on Neri as he attempts to steer one of America’s oldest garage start-ups into an unknown future that no one – even the robots – can predict just yet.

Antonio Neri: The facts

Born: May 10, 1967
Status: Married, with two children
School: Technical High School in Bahia Blanca, Argentina
University: National Technological University, Bahia Blanca
Pay: $12.6m a year
Home: Livermore, California
Hobbies: Painting and watching football

Strategic storage is intelligent

Jenna Colleran, product marketing manager, storage marketing at HPE, explains what drives the need for intelligent storage

Digital business – the integration of data and corporate strategy – is creating an unprecedented number of opportunities to improve products and services and even create entirely new business models. But digital business is made possible by data quantities that are multiplying at a startling rate, putting extreme pressure on storage infrastructure and IT staff. The old methods of reactive storage management won’t work anymore. To enable digital business, intelligent storage is needed.

Just what is intelligent storage? The following are three examples.

First, intelligent storage means using artificial intelligence (AI).  AI algorithms gather performance information across the entire installed base of storage systems and then study it to discern patterns, whether in application behavior, data movement, or hardware reliability. In this way, small tendencies can be spotlighted, making it possible to automatically avert larger performance issues before they develop.

Second, intelligent storage means understanding where data needs to be across multiple data centres and the cloud. Many businesses have adopted mirrored data centres to ensure high availability. Should an issue cause one data centre to go offline, the other would take over instantly.

Third, intelligent storage is consumption-based. For many businesses, demand fluctuates dramatically. This is particularly true for online retailers. Shopping activity during peak holiday periods can go through the roof.

Because it would be unacceptable for customers to visit a retail website and be unable to make a purchase because of insufficient capacity, IT managers might consider overprovisioning storage and simply chalk it up to a cost of doing business.

A far smarter and more strategic approach is to provision information storage flexibly, using consumption-based capabilities.

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