Don’t fear AI, unless you love doing ‘stupid things’: Conference speaker

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For those fearing artificial intelligence looms on the horizon as threatening as a T-1000 from the movie Terminator 2 with a goal of wiping out humanity, Chris Wynder has a reassuring message.

“It’s the automation of stupid things” we don’t want to do, said the executive with OpenText, a Waterloo software developer.

Things such as inputting data, filling out forms, note taking, scheduling and pricing, to name a few mundane tasks.

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But make no mistake, it is fast-evolving technology and London business and industry is being offered a chance to learn where it’s headed with two conferences this week on how AI will impact business. Wynder is a keynote speaker at one.

“The cool part, what the average person needs to understand, is that for the most part it will be positive,” said Wynder, who lives in London and is a director of marketing and other services at the Waterloo business.

“Take an everyday example: All those forms we have to fill out multiple times for health care. One of the things AI does well is hunt for a name in multiple places at the same time. It will get rid of stupid tasks,” he said.

 “AI doesn’t get bored asking the same question 12 different ways.”

Wednesday, the London Economic Development Corp is hosting TechCentric at 100 Kellogg Lane, featuring an afternoon of speakers in tech and finance discussing AI’s impact, where Wynder will speak.

The same day, the Canadian Operational Research Society, a business academic group, will end a three-day conference at DoubleTree by Hilton London with a day-long AI discussion focused on using AI to solve problems in the workplace and a discussion of how AI is likely to evolve.

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“AI has blown up but it’s a support tool,” said Fredrik Odegaard, professor at the Ivey School of Business at Western University. “It can take on a support role in any industry, from finance and accounting to manufacturing and supply chains.”

He agrees with Wynder that AI will automate more daily, routine tasks but “it will not eliminate many workers, it will not decimate the workforce.”

Said Odegaard: “There may be certain jobs lost, like we lost video store clerks and milk men.”

But it’s also likely to give rise to a whole new workforce: those who support and work with AI technology to apply it in various industries and then take the findings of AI’s work and apply it to the workplace.

“I think it will generate other jobs, it will open job opportunities for people,” Odegaard said.

Just as the industrial and technology revolutions were feared for replacing workers, they created new industry and jobs that were not foreseen

Odegaard expects 250 to 300 at his conference while TechCentric will see about 400 in attendance.

In London and the region there are about 16,000 working in the tech sector and embracing the impact and potential of AI is key to ensure continued growth, said Kapil Lakhotia, chief executive of the London Economic Development Corp.

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“Our goal is the long-term sustainable growth of the economy and we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss AI,” said Lakhotia. “It’s evolving at such a fast pace, so how does it apply to businesses of various shapes and sizes?”

TechCentric will feature a discussion on practical uses of AI, and talks by technology firms including Uniblock, Paystone and Trackunit as well as OpenText.

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As for how it will evolve, Wynder doesn’t see a serious threat to humanity or our jobs.

But there may be a longer term future where AI charges you when you leave a grocery store with items, meaning there are no cashiers for checkout; a retail model already tried that and failed but may resurface with better technology. There could also be food and retail product delivery systems powered by AI, and just-in-time delivery scheduled by AI for manufacturers, now a big part of the trucking industry.

He sees marketing most at risk of an AI influence, not in the writing of material but in choosing what markets will be targeted as well as pricing.

“The whole process of launching (a product) to how many locations and what they pay” are tasks AI does well, Wynder said. 

But “it is not a good storyteller,” he adds. “For marketing to work, a story has to be believable and AI is not believable. It will be a very interesting next few years. AI literacy may be the most important skill we learn.” 

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