Artificial intelligence continues to be both romanticized and villainized within the business community.
Praised for its real-world examples of increasing efficiencies, improving decision-making and providing a competitive advantage, it’s also sparked fears due to its high costs, complexity and ethical considerations, to name a few.
Local experts admit there are many misconceptions about artificial intelligence, or AI, from both perspectives that often trace back to an unfamiliarity with the technology. Yet with the transformative power of AI here to stay, they say the question business owners should now be focusing on is not “if,” but “how” will they use it?
“There isn’t an organization that’s not exploring AI. It’s just that most don’t know how to take that first step,” says Nicole Janssen, co-founder and co-CEO of AltaML, an Alberta-based AI scaleup that designs and implements applied AI solutions for businesses.
The modern field of AI traces back to the 1950s. The deep learning revolution since the early 2010s have since proliferated AI’s use in virtually every facet of our personal and professional lives.
AI’s applications have become even more popularized in recent years through generative AI programs such as ChatGPT that use computer algorithms learning to not just predict but also produce based on the patterns they learn from existing content.
Janssen and her husband Cory co-launched AltaML in 2017 after they both saw a gap between where businesses were with their respective AI adoption journeys and where they wanted to be. Much of the effort since then has been on education.
“Often, that’s where we have to start with a lot of our clients,” says Janssen. “From the executive to that end user, we’re helping to explain AI, explain machine learning, as well as what can it do for you and what it can’t.”
Today, the Alberta-based company has grown from four employees to 120, with offices in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. Janssen estimates they have more 400 use cases of helping businesses in sectors such as manufacturing, finance and energy identify where AI and machine learning technologies can be applied to improve their day-to-day operations.
It’s part of a growing trend of AI adoption in Calgary and beyond. Statistics Canada’s 2022 Advance Technology Survey noted large enterprises are leading the AI adoption charge, with the utilities, information, cultural, finance and insurance industries boasting the highest adoption rates.
However, Canadian business still have a way to go when compared with their American counterparts. A KPMG survey released this past spring revealed only one-third of Canadian companies are currently using AI in their operations, which is approximately half of that of U.S. business.
Of the Canadian organizations currently using AI, more than half of respondents admit they could be using AI more effectively and efficiently.
When it comes to Chat GPT specifically, only one-third Canadian companies are looking at ways of using the AI platform to improve their operations, compared with nearly two-thirds of U.S. businesses using the technology.
Some of the main challenges to increased AI adoption stem from lack of skilled talent and quality data to train AI algorithms.
“Large organizations are sitting on vast amounts of data, but to make that data work effectively for them, they need to properly assess the quality of their data first,” says Zoe Willis, partner and national data and digital lead for KPMG in Canada.
“Without that, their journey towards being AI-ready will be rocky, so the first step for any organization thinking about adopting AI is get your data ready.”
Another step is to understand the problem before deploying an AI solution. Another fallacy about AI that Janssen continues to see is business owners believing AI is a magic pill. Yet she reminds clients that AI does not work and bring results on its own.
“It’s not about asking, what can machine learning do? It’s asking, what are your business problems? And then deciding with the data you have whether this problem is best solved through machine learning,” says Janssen.
“If not, you can end up spending money on something that really doesn’t give you a return on the investment.”
Willis further points to several additional steps organizations can take to achieve AI readiness, including compiling a full inventory of data, assessing its accuracy and relevance, identifying gaps and evaluating where that data sits with the organization.
“Without quality data, AI algorithms are susceptible to output that is biased, incorrect, misleading and unreliable, and the consequences for businesses include errors that lead to poor business decisions, ” he says.
This plays into two other common fallacies that Janssen commonly encounters. The first is that AI is a one-size-fits-all solution. The reality is every company’s data and problems will be slightly different than someone else, so the application of AI will be quite different.
The second is that AI will replace jobs. In fact, Janssen says it’s quite the opposite.
“Instead, what’s often happened is that they have repurposed those individuals into higher-value work because they’ve taken away some of the work that’s lesser value,” says Janssen.
Several post-secondary schools in Calgary are already training tomorrow’s workforce on how to use AI tools in business today. The University of Calgary, Mount Royal University and Bow Valley College all offer machine learning courses, with the latter being part of the AI Pathways Partnership consortium of post-secondaries from across Alberta that aims to jointly advance artificial intelligence and machine learning.
This fall, the University of Calgary is offering a new Generative AI and Prompting undergraduate course that focuses on the newly emerging field of “prompt engineering” and how to best harness the power of generative AI.
Mohammad Keyhani, the associate professor of entrepreneurship from the university’s Haskayne School of Business who will be teaching the course, says the intent is to provide students with a better working knowledge on how to leverage tools such as ChatGPT and Midjourney to solve real-world problems.
“This technology is taking over the world. People need to prepare for it,” he says, noting the course will also cover cautions and concerns regarding the use of AI such as plagiarism, intellectual property and data privacy.
“Most of that preparation isn’t really about learning the mathematics or engineering behind AI. That field already exists. Rather, the rise of generative AI is creating a new field, a new area of expertise, a new discipline that we all need to learn. And nobody is really preparing our kids for that.”
Outside of the classroom, he extends the message of preparation to business owners who should also be looking for ways to accept AI within their respective operations.
“The message that I think is most critical to get out is that people need to appreciate how game-changing this technology really is,” says Keyhani.
“If you’re a business that is just trying to ignore it or you’re banning it in your business because you’re worried about how people are going to use it, that’s the wrong way to approach this. It’s like trying to ban the Internet. This is not the way to go.
“People have to really take this seriously. It’s not just another fad.”