Takeaways from our first ‘AI in Action’ event series at Microsoft

Speakers included BC's Minister Brenda Bailey, ​Microsoft's David Seymour, and KPMG's ​Walter Pela

This week, we launched our ‘AI in Action’ invite-only event series with Microsoft to highlight diverse perspectives and voices and cultivate a culture of AI literacy, ethics, and innovation to ensure the technology benefits all.

The kick-off focused on the AI opportunity in B.C. and how it can contribute to a more sustainable economy and society. Speakers included ​Hon. Brenda Bailey, BC’s Minister of Jobs, Economic Development, and Innovation; ​David Seymour, VP and GM of Microsoft Vancouver; and ​Walter Pela, Managing Partner of KPMG Vancouver. The conversation was moderated by Farhan Mohamed, CEO of VTJ.

B.C. is changing

A significant takeaway that set the stage for the evening’s topic is that B.C. is in a time of transition.

“We're transitioning from being primarily focused and deeply dependent on forestry, fisheries, mining, to being a knowledge economy,” said Bailey. “That transition is hard. It's messy. It's problematic.”

Bailey added that driving our economy requires precision technology through AI and aligning that with climate goals. For example, AI tools can be used to identify when forest fires may happen and their location, and search for and pick up copper ore 200 feet down in a way that reduces waste.

Beyond these cases, local governments, organizations, and citizens are applying AI in various ways.

Stories shared include the City of Kelowna using AI to expedite housing permits; Air Canada piloting a facial recognition option for faster boarding at the Vancouver International Airport; Seaspan, a North-Vancouver-based shipbuilding firm, creating robots that can automate welding of pipes; Clarius, a Burnaby-based digital healthcare company, offering handheld wireless ultrasound scanners that connect to iOS and Android devices, and farmers using facial recognition to keep track of their cows and be alerted if any goes missing.

Despite these headways, B.C. is still behind in adopting AI and many small businesses remain hesitant compared to Quebec — which isn't a surprise, given the province is home to the globally recognized research institute, Mila, and non-profit, Forum IA.

“The opportunity that I see in front of us is a really important one, which is how do we crack the problem [...] that small-and-medium-sized businesses are not adopting AI [and] probably don't have bandwidth,” said Bailey. “The benefit to them is extraordinary, so we need to do more in this. There's work ahead of us, for sure.”

Brenda Bailey’s opening address (Image: Microsoft)

Bailey highlighted that B.C. is experiencing a severe labour shortage, and AI can help businesses scale and grow. For example, before Seaspan started using robots, they had to turn down projects because they didn't have enough workers.

“When I talk to businesses all the time, the two factors they're struggling with are labour shortages and costs. Why are we so scared about job loss when we're in a labour shortage? So transition, not loss.”

Pela highlighted that B.C.’s, along with Canada's and the rest of the world’s, economies are in a slowdown partly because the adoption of technology has saturated. At the same time, our population growth is flatlining from aging and lower fertility.

“If there was a call to action here, AI could be part of the solution,” said Pela. “Because this is a fundamental change in technology. If we accelerate the adoption of it, we will see some boost in productivity and economic gains.”

Future benefits

Seymour predicts a significant digital transformation arc will occur over the next five years.

"The businesses that understand and lean into this will have business, [environmental, and sustainability] impact," said Seymour. "For some, the secondary revenue streams from their data sets and expert models may rival their primary business."

Seymour added that in many cases the focus will be how efficiently we can help our skilled people, land, and energy and yield.

"One way to look at increased productivity is not always infinite growth; it's yield,” explained Seymour. “We're very land constrained for a lot of our key businesses [...], resource businesses. Yield is a massive source of opportunity for us."

Adding to Seymour’s point, Pela highlighted the famous metaphor that “data is the new oil,” — meaning data must be refined and transformed to make it into useful products and services, and only then does it become valuable.

“The amount of data that's private is incredible, and it's residing in businesses and organizations," said Pela. "Accessing those datasets and providing insights [and] solutions is where, probably, the best use cases are derived from [...] The low-hanging fruit is using AI to drive operational efficiencies, but where the real value is [...] private data sets."

Pela encouraged collecting data even if it's uncertain what the AI application or LLM will be two to three years from now, given that whatever they are, it will require a private data set. For example, Seymour shared a story of a young dairy farmer he met who set up dozens of IoT sensors. He was still determining what to do with the data and asked Seymour if he should continue paying for storage.

"The answer is yes," Seymour told the farmer. "Collecting that data is so inexpensive [and] the model that you can train on how to optimize, yield, and manage a dairy farm with grass-fed cows in this particular climate region with these conditions is unbelievably valuable," adding that there could be thousands of farms willing to pay him a SaaS fee to access his model in the future.

The way forward

So, what steps can we take today to start or build on harnessing AI?

Bailey encouraged spending less time querying the technology and more time engaging with it, planning for it, and rolling it out.

“[In] British Columbia, there's so many ways that we hit above our weight class. This is another area where we could do that. Let's get everybody we know thinking in that way for what British Columbia could be.”

Bailey also emphasized that sharing the many great stories will help more people understand AI and its implications.

Seymour advised starting to think about what your vision with AI could look like and taking initial steps.

“Begin collecting the data sets that your business uniquely has,” he said. “You can then train expert models that are a lot more valuable to your business, customers, and processes than some public model you've faced before. What lies beyond that is applying optimization scale.”

Seymour also said the key behind the many opportunities with AI is approaching it responsibly and ethically. "AI has to have the characteristics of fairness, reliable, safe, private, secure, inclusive, transparent, accessible, and accountable — that's probably the most critical value, ultimately, is that people are accountable to everything AI does."

To Pela, a framework's values should also consider those of the organization and be human-centred.

"What are your organizational values? What imperatives are ensuring that your AI strategy and approach reflect those? Human-centred in that the adoption of AI requires changes to people's behaviour."

Pela added that adopting AI is also part of being responsible with the technology.

"It's irresponsible right now for an organization to put their head in the sand and not make this the number one or top three or five [priorities] for this coming year and years."

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