Unisys CEO Peter Altabef: ‘All Hands On Deck’ For AI
‘With all the talk about artificial intelligence, it’s almost like, did we forget about quantum? Did we forget that’s gonna change everything, too? And the answer is, we haven’t forgotten. We think that if you put the two together, you really get a different league of solution,’ says Unisys Chairman and CEO Peter Altabef.
Investing For The Future
The introduction last month of the Unisys Logistics Optimization technology marks the first major push for global solution provider Unisys into quantum computing. And while that quantum computing push is relatively new for Unisys, it comes even as the Blue Bell, Pa.-based company continues a yearslong push to be a leader in providing real artificial intelligence solutions not only to its customers but to its own employees.
Unisys Chairman and CEO Peter Altabef recently told CRN that for Unisys, ranked No. 34 on CRN’s Solution Provider 500, AI is a part of everything the company does, and that the next iteration, generative AI is already being quickly embraced by its employees and clients.
“While it’s kind of trite to say it, it’s all hands on deck [with AI], Altabef said. “There’s no piece of our company from training to solutions to forward thinking that is not actively looking at how do we put generative AI into our solutions, which we’ve already done. We focus on how do we continue to do that? And how do we use it so that we can actually perform more efficiently ourselves?”
The short-term effect of generative AI has been overhyped both in terms of the investments required and the immediacy of its impact, Altabef said.
“But I think there’s no question that it is real,” he said. “It is substantive, and it’s long lasting. So even if half of the hype is accurate, it’s a game changer for our industry and, frankly, all industries.”
Even as Unisys moves to make AI and generative AI a part of every customer solution and a part of every employee’s job, the company is also embracing quantum computing, Altabef said. And for Unisys, it is not just “quantum washing” of the company’s business, but a serious push to combine quantum computing with both historic and generative AI, he said.
“[Quantum computing is] a space where not everybody has gotten to yet,” he said. “With all the talk about artificial intelligence, it’s almost like, did we forget about quantum? Did we forget that’s gonna change everything, too? And the answer is, we haven’t forgotten. We think that if you put the two together, you really get a different league of solution.”
Here’s more of what Altabef told CRN:
How do you describe Unisys?
Unisys is a technology consulting company that specializes in providing solutions to its clients in pretty specific areas [including] cloud infrastructure and digital workplace. We try not to be all things to all people. We really go in with a best-of-breed approach. We do it with clients on a global basis. And we do it with clients across financial services, commercial, and the public sector.
About 46 percent of our revenues come from U.S. and Canada. It depends on the quarter, but in a typical quarter revenue will be a third, a third, a third between financial services; the public sector, including state and local governments and federal governments around the world; and what we call commercial, which tends to be around logistics, travel and transportation, healthcare, manufacturing, and high-tech companies. So pretty broad. We have people in about 43 countries servicing about 100 countries around the world.
How far along has Unisys come in terms of artificial intelligence?
I remind people when we talk about artificial intelligence of a Steven Spielberg movie called A.I. released in 2001. So artificial intelligence, in some form, has been around a long time. We have been very active in artificial intelligence since before 2001. What has really changed, and I think what has caught the public’s imagination as well as the C-suite imagination of our clients, is generative AI. That’s the ChatGPT and Google Bard stuff. I don’t think we should lose the fact that artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc., has and continues to be really important. But we’ve now layered another piece on top of it: generative AI. And while it’s kind of trite to say it, it’s all hands on deck. There’s no piece of our company from training to solutions to forward thinking that is not actively looking at how do we put generative AI into our solutions, which we’ve already done. We focus on how do we continue to do that? And how do we use it so that we can actually perform more efficiently ourselves?
People have probably overhyped the short-term effect of generative AI, both from the standpoint of the investments required and the immediacy of the impact. I think it’s been overhyped. But I think there’s no question that it is real. It is substantive, and it’s long lasting. So even if half of the hype is accurate, it’s a game changer for our industry and, frankly, all industries.
You said Unisys is ‘all hands on deck’ in bringing generative AI into everything you’re doing. Can you give an example of where Unisys has already applied it internally?
So last month, we announced Unisys’ quantum logistics optimization solution. We have a 50-plus-year history of working with travel and transportation companies, and logistics for those travel and transportation companies. We know this space really, really well. And so, several years ago, actually before generative AI became a public thing, we started our next-generation solution around the logistics industry using machine learning. We used, if you will, traditional AI, and now use generative AI as well to create a new solution in the quantum logistics space. But the key word there is ‘quantum.’ So we’re using real quantum annealing and real quantum calculations and quantum computing. We’re marrying that with both traditional and generative AI to create a solution for the cargo industry that we think is really very, very powerful, and it has been very well received. It’s in pilot right now. So it’s a combination of looking at AI, both historic and generative, and at quantum computing, a space where not everybody has gotten to yet. With all the talk about artificial intelligence, it’s almost like, did we forget about quantum? Did we forget that’s gonna change everything, too? And the answer is, we haven’t forgotten. We think that if you put the two together, you really get a different league of solution.
It seems everybody’s still trying to wrap their heads around the practical applications of AI, and then you bring up the word ‘quantum computing.’ What’s your definition of quantum computing? And what is Unisys actually doing with it? I want to make sure we’re not ‘quantum-washing’ the conversation.
Oh, we’re using real quantum computing. To your point, there are different pieces of quantum. In this solution, we’re using a piece called quantum annealing. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have a package. You give it to an air freight company. That package has to go from here to there. And somebody has to figure out how. Let’s say you’re giving it to an airline that is going to use their air freight. Well, that airline may operate in 100 different countries, and may have 1,000 different aircraft. They would rather use their aircraft because it’s cheaper. But if they have to, they’ll use somebody else. And so there are so many different possibilities. How do you fill the shipment compartment in the belly of the airplane? How much can you pack in there? How quickly can you move it out when the plane lands? How efficient is the movement? I mean, it’s mind boggling in its complexity.
Remember, we used to use LEGOs, right? It’s how do you make your most efficient LEGO for the belly of the airplane? And then how do you build it out? If you wanted to get the best answer, it would honestly take weeks. Nobody does that. So they have computers that try to get the answer in a relatively short period of time. But nobody thinks it gets the best answer. Now put quantum computing into that, put machine learning or traditional AI into that, and put generative AI into that, to create something that didn’t exist before, and now you actually get the best answer. You could never get the best answer before in a timely manner. Now you can.
How is Unisys finding and training personnel to bear on quantum computing? And what does Unisys do with customers in that respect?
With great difficulty. It’s not easy. But Unisys has a couple of advantages. One is that a lot of the companies in our space are solution integrators. They’re kind of your ‘mess for less’ companies. That’s important. I’m not undermining it, but that’s what they do. Unisys has historically brought an engineering background to what it does. This year, we are celebrating our 150th anniversary. We are not new. And engineering is kind of having a comeback. … Our history of engineering successes means that we’re really, really qualified to put leading-edge engineers into this.
It’s hard to get qualified AI people. It’s better to train most of them. Frankly, it’s really hard to get quantum people. That is a part of the industry that is even less developed than AI. But our folks are engineers by training, and they love challenges. We have hosted in India one of the longest standing engineering challenge contests in the whole country. It’s enormous. And that’s been our heritage. And so whether it’s people in the U.S., in Europe, in South America, in India, that engineering stuff of ours is really having its day.
Then how do you retain those people? There’s probably a lot of demand for them.
If we look at our top 50 clients, some of whom became clients in the last two years, on average they have been with us over 20 years. Just think about that. It’s not dissimilar for our associates. No place is perfect. This place is not perfect. But if you’re a client of this company, you kind of stay. The people who work for us are called ‘associates,’ and if you’re an associate at Unisys, you stay. And that is a really, really important part.
OK, but given the many opportunities out there in these burgeoning spaces, why would they stay?
Every company will talk about its culture. Every company will talk about what makes it special. … We think it’s really important that the people who work at this company have a great experience. It’s a little more than that, though. When everybody in the world was kind of forgetting how important it was to be an engineer, and I don’t mean that literally, but I mean when people were really focused on your ‘mess for less,’ we were really focused on retaining and showing the pride with which we understood the value of top engineers. We’ve always believed in that. And they have stayed and learned and developed. We’ve got incredibly well-educated, thoughtful people that, had they been somewhere else, they probably would have been on their fifth job. And here, they’ve may have been here their whole careers.
With generative AI and quantum computing, are you playing to customer demand? Are customers coming to you and asking projects be done using these technologies? Or are you out evangelizing?
That’s a great question. If the question is about quantum, it’s evangelizing. I’m can’t remember the last time I walked into a client meeting where they asked me about quantum computing. They will in three years or five years, but they’re not doing now. So one way in which we can differentiate ourselves is by saying, ‘Have you thought about this and thought about the value this brings?’
If the question is about AI, and generative AI in particular, it’s exactly the reverse. I haven’t been to a client meeting since February where the client has not brought it up. So it’s a tale of two cities. There’s talk about AI and generative AI in every one of our solutions. Not every one of our solutions talks about quantum. That’s a rare word. But on the AI stand, you can’t pick up a newspaper and not read it, and you can’t go into a client meeting and not talk about it.
For 2024, what are some things you would like to see Unisys do in terms of either new solution areas or expansion opportunities?
As I said, on the AI front, we have historically had education and learning in what we’ll call traditional AI. But now everybody in the company has access to generative AI training. Everybody. And we need the company to lean into this because, as generative AI takes hold at our company and others, there’s going to be a change in the way companies staff and what companies do. I mean, you can’t have a technology that is as widespread and as meaningful as that and say nobody’s job changes. And so it’s really important, and it’s not just our company, but I think every company actually has an obligation to help their people lean in, and to help their people get the confidence that they can work productively in that new environment. Every associate in the company can have a personas. So if you are a software engineer and you are writing code in a generative AI environment, that’s a different persona than if you’re on a help desk. And so the training will be different.
Every single person in the company has access to general AI training. And that has opened their minds to, ‘What do you want to do? And how do you use this technology in your job today? And what do you want to be tomorrow? How do you want to change your skills?’
So to go back to your question, what do I want Unisys to be in 2024? That’s a work in progress. We have made that training available to everybody in the company. And not everybody has taken it. Some people are frankly fearful. They don’t want to open up door number three, and we have to get them to open up. We will be a better company. They will be more confident in themselves. We’ve got to get them to open up door number three. I hope through the rest of ‘23 and all of ’24, we get that done.
Financially, how would you describe Unisys? The company’s revenue has been falling somewhat.
From a revenue standpoint, the company about three years ago did a major sale of Unisys Federal. That resulted in the loss of that revenue, but brought a bunch of cash. We used that cash to make some payments on our pension. And we also used that cash to make three really important acquisitions in the context of our digital workplace, and in the context of our cloud and applications. So it’s kind of a swap, if you will. But whenever you are buying, you tend not to get the same revenue as when you sell. So the revenue went down because of that.