Jim Goodnight, CEO of business analytics software vendor SAS, is one of America’s richest people and 305th richest in the world. His entire fortune has been built on data analytics technology for businesses – what can be seen as the precursor to AI today.
The “godfather of data” has seen it all: the analytics boom, the relentless advancements in tech and now generative AI. The 80-year-old businessman spoke to Information Age at the SAS Institute convention in Orlando about what he thinks of generative AI and how business can harness its power today.
What is day-to-day life like for you now that you’re stepping back a bit more? How involved are you still with SAS?
We’ve got great people helping run the company and I’m just there like a chairman of the board overseeing things. I bring up things every once in a while that I think might need some attention.
Are you enjoying that role?
Yes, I am. I’m still very involved and I get demos every week about all the latest things that is being worked on and I can ask questions and probe a little bit. But we have a great team right now and they’ve done some wonderful work in speeding up our software, making it unbelievably fast. That makes a lot of difference.
I think it’s fair to say you’ve seen a lot in the tech industry. How does the AI revolution compare with that of other tech booms like the dot-com boom? Our prime minister likened it to the Industrial Revolution…
First of all, my involvement with AI has always been on the numerical side. Trying to make our models better, a little more efficient and giving better predictive capabilities. So, this whole generative AI stuff is something that’s pretty new to me – I’m not that familiar with it. I’ve played with it: it makes a lot of mistakes, it makes stuff up a lot but it’s very interesting, still.
[With] these large language models, we’re looking into providing our customers with instructions on how to use SAS better. Or, if they have questions, we would like to be able to answer them using a generative AI solution. So, we’ll be working on that but as far as large language models go, that has not been our focus over the last 20, 30 years.
Going back almost 50 years to the start of SAS: did you know back then that business analytics would be the hit it is today?
Oh absolutely. I think probably as early as 1990 we had banks starting to use analytics to predict their customer behaviour – which ones were acting fraudulently, which ones they should do business with, and which they should avoid. The risk problem they had was that banks had to determine what kind of risks they had and how much money they needed to put in reserve to take care of future problems, so it’s been around for at least 30-something years.
In the early days when SAS first started, it was mainly analysing experiments. Especially in agriculture and in the pharmaceutical field, where every drug had to go through the trial process, comparing a placebo with the treatment itself to determine if there was significant differences between the standard of care from the placebo and the experimental treatment. Then we started to do more estimating, forecasting and modelling to do things other than experiments.
Over that time, what are you most proud of?
Ultimately, I’m probably most proud of the work environment that we’ve built over the years. We’ve been ranked as one of the best places to work in the world. I’m very proud of that. I’m [also] very, very proud of a lot of the uses our customers have been able to make of SAS, especially in the medical and pharmaceutical areas which have turned out to have made people very happy.
Has that working culture been a focus from the start? What has been the factor that has resulted in that?
We liked working on SAS because we knew it made other people’s jobs easier. They didn’t have to go and write a bunch of programmes to do analysis – that was our job. We provided them with the tools to make their job easier and better and this has always given us great satisfaction.
Where do you want SAS to go in, say, two to five years’ time?
We want to continue leading as the number one business analytics platform. We’ve now shown our performance is so much better than others, but we also want to continue to build on our solution portfolio.
[Continue] all our fraud work we do for banks and insurance companies – even tax collectors around the world are using SAS to vet out individuals who aren’t paying their proper taxes. That’s a big thing. Then the whole risk area for banks, anti-money laundering work to help protect us mainly from drug dealers and terrorists. Our capability to be able to forecast and help determine what offers or ads should be shown in front of people. It’s just a number of different areas of fraud and risk that we’re doing. We see great growth potential there.
You’ve stayed a private company for years and it looked as though that was never going to change. It looks like it’s going to change now by 2025 – why?
A part of it is the employees would like to see some degree of ownership but also, I’m starting to get at the age where you have to think about the great beyond and that sort of thing and what’s going to happen to the company. I want to see it put into the position where it can continue. Whenever I pass on there’s got to be someone here and its taxes are going to have to be paid and we need to be in more of a liquid position.
Are you going to feel sad to see it float?
No, I’m looking forward for that to happen for the people.
How do you see the role of generative AI on business analytics over the next year or two? I see SAS has increased efforts to bring in trustworthy AI…
I just think back about the Terminators and the Skynet becoming aware to the world and I think there’s a lot of people that think, ‘is this where we’re going?’ Philosophically, maybe it’s our job to replace ourselves with something more intelligent [laughs]. Well, you think of all the pollution we’ve created in the world and all the need for food and agriculture and the growing population and all of that…
The ‘godfather of AI’, Geoffrey Hinton, has warned of the dangers of AI after quitting Google. Do you have any thoughts on AI as a threat?
The sentient nature of this thing? Well, there maybe some sentient there but it’s pretty stupid at the same time. It’s interesting to see where we’re going. Our interest is mainly in providing more information and to help our customers and train an AI programme to understand what SAS is about and produce better solutions for our customers.
For the record you’ve also been referred to as the godfather of AI and analytics – do you like having that tag?
I’m not sure where that came from. It didn’t come from me!
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