Schulich Tech Leader Talk - Musing on AI and Machine Learning

Got my MBA here in Toronto at the Schulich School of Business (nee York University) a long time ago, but I stay involved, and am part of the Technology Alumni Group, which you can follow and join here on Linkedin.  

Last night, I attended their latest Tech Leader Talk event downtown, and the topic was a good one - the outlook for AI and machine learning (ML). If you follow me, you'll know that these technologies are finding their way into the UC/collaboration space, as well as customer care. While I didn't expect to hear much on that tangent, the bigger picture is of great interest on many levels. That said, two of the panelists did talk about marketing and customer journey applications, and that alone would have been enough for me.

In short, the panel was moderated by Jordan Jacobs of Layer 6 AI. Joining him were speakers from two household names - IBM and Salesforce, along with local startup Canopy Labs, and consulting firm Idea Couture.

Waving the hometown flag, Jordan started things off with some facts and figures touting how Toronto is a global leader in AI R&D, and just how in-demand data engineers are today, especially coming out of academia - wow. A bit late in the game for me, but not for my kids!

Otherwise, there was a lively roundtable discussion about all the cool applications coming, and akin to the Internet of Things, every industry, line of work, job, etc. is somehow going to be transformed by AI/ML in our lifetime.

Sure, the hype cycle is running hot, and these things always take longer than planned, and we've been hearing about AI for decades, but there's no doubt that the stars are lining up.

Of course, the audience was quick to ask about the implications, the downside, the ethics, etc. Lots of good discussion there, and one comment that I think resonated with everyone had to do with what jobs will be hot 10 years now.

No doubt there will be tons of jobs displaced in sectors like transportation and manufacturing, but the consultant, Shane Saunderson, posited that philosophers will be in big demand then. I'm with him on this, as once AI/ML matures enough to disrupt/transform daily life, we're going to need big picture thinkers to consider what it all means and understand the implications/opportunities for humanity and the planet. Sign me up!

That's all I have for now, but will leave you with two things. Below is not-great photo of Juan Carlos Sanchez of the Tech Alumni group introducing the panel. Secondly, the event was live-streamed on their Facebook page, so if you want to watch, here's the link.

Living Locally - Learning Globally

By choice, I haven't been travelling much lately and have made a conscious effort to connect more with the local tech community. I've been doing so in a variety of ways the past few months, and it's a nice change from all the networking I do at industry events in the U.S. As big a city as Toronto is, there hasn't been much business here for me, and I'm trying harder to fix that.

One avenue I've recently explored is the York Technology Association. Just like the name says, it's a local networking group, and I attended my first luncheon event today. Some pretty interesting companies here, and as I get more involved with YTA, I'll get better connected.

Another reason for attending was their speaker, who was presenting about cloud computing. I've been writing about this in a few places recently, and I think it's one of the big trends to watch for in our space. The presenter was Phil Morris, CTO of Platform Computing. They've been around for a while and certainly know the space. His talk was too heavy on the technology, but it was a good primer for the audience. There were no new takeaways for me, but it was great to connect with a local player in this space.

The Future of the Auto - Telecom Parallels

This morning I attended an event put on by Ogilvy Renault and Deloitte, whose TMT practice I follow pretty regularly. The MaRS facility has become a good home for their events, and that's a topic unto itself. MaRS is a unique concept for an innovation center/business incubator, and there are all too few of these to support Canadian startups. Their focus is mostly life sciences, but they have a handful of tech clients, and as my ties develop there, you can expect to hear more about MaRS in future posts.

Today's breakfast session was about the future of the car, which is a hot topic for just about everyone these days. The focus was mainly around cleantech and energy, so I didn't go there expecting to hear about what's cool in GPS, wireless broadband, smartcar technologies, etc. That would have been nice, but the energy angle was still interesting. The panel had a mix of academics and real businesses - the latter being Magna and Zenn Motor Company (this sounds pretty neat actually - a Canadian public company making an electric car - but within Canada, it's only available in Quebec - huh?).

Anyhow, there was a lot of talk about the challenges for using hydrogen and fuel cells to power electric cars, and I couldn't help but notice the strong parallels to telecom, and what IP has done to displace/disrupt the PSTN. Just substitute carbon/oil for PSTN, and hydrogen/fuel cells for IP, and the conversation unfolds pretty much the same. Very interesting - I love being an outsider at these things - I don't think anyone else attending was really thinking along these lines.

As with IP, most of us can see that hydrogen holds great potential and in time should supplant carbon-based fuel to power our cars. Being early stage technology (well, sort of - they've been working on this for a very long time), adoption has been held back by the usual suspects - high unit costs, unreliable fuel cell technology, limited distribution/infrastructure, and worst of all, a lack of political will/vision to bring the electric car into the mainstream. It's really scary when you think about how U.S. and Canadian governments have devoted so little attention to broadband policy/regulation, and how far we're falling behind the rest of the industrialized world. Same story here.

I couldn't help but also notice how much of a silo mentality there is in only talking about cleantech - as if that's the magic bullet that will save the auto industry. Aside from the banks, can you think of an industry that's in more trouble than this? If you think telecom is struggling to transition from 1.0 to 2.0, this sector really has a big hill to climb.

Not that I was expecting a broader agenda today, but there wasn't ever a mention about the bigger picture issues around what kind of cars we need today, how the industry is evolving, where the auto fits relative to other modes of transportation - especially in big cities, etc. There was, thankfully, one good question from the audience, asking about the impact of using lighter materials to build cars. No doubt, the technology is there to develop lighter, stronger materials, and of course that would be a huge step forward in making cars more practical.

One panelist did concede that when the Chinese start bringing $5,000 electric cars to North America, we won't be able to compete. Ugh. I don't think we're too far away from that scenario, and what is GM going to do then?

I could certainly go on about the parallels to telecom, but I think you can see where I'm coming from on that front. Give me a ring if you want to take that thought further, but right now I'm working up to my big finish. My reference to GM just now wasn't an accident. Today's session painfully reminded me of a must-see CBC documentary on the fate of the electric car. Titled "Who Killed The Electric Car?", if this doesn't lay bare the 1.0 thinking that has effectively destroyed GM, I don't know what will. In short, it tells the ill-fated story about the EV-1, perhaps the greatest flash of innovation from GM in a generation. It was a first generation electric car, launched as a trial in the 1990's in California in response to the growing need for greener, zero emission cars in that state.

As the film shows, the vehicle was a hit with the lucky few hundred who got to drive one. Then the dark side emerges, and we learn about the ugly forces that caused the EV-1 to be taken off the market, and then destroyed with barely a trace. If you thought Stalin's historical revisionism was evil, you'll love this documentary, and I'm so glad Michael Moore didn't get his hands on it first (mind you, Roger and Me is pretty good too!). For Canadians, of course, this just screams Avro Arrow, and you just have to wonder where the auto sector would be today if GM hadn't been so frickin' shortsighted. I better stop now if I know what's good for me. Anyhow, you can check out this doc online here, and if you get CBC TV, you're in luck, as it's being re-broadcast this weekend. If you care about the auto market, you don't want to miss it.

Toronto Meetup Event - b5media and Blogging

Last night I attended my first Third Tuesday Toronto networking event in ages. It's part of the Meetup network of in-person events/get-togethers/networking/socials - you get the idea. Whatever you want to call them - you know what they are, and it's a great way to engage like-minded communities on a local level. I've attached myself to a few of these here in Toronto, and this was the first one where the schedule worked out for me to attend.

The topic was definitely of interest - blogging and online advertising - with the guest being Jeremy Wright, Pres/CEO of Toronto-based b5media. His company is a blogging network, and they've been evolving a business model for bloggers over the past 4 years. What made his talk so interesting was hearing how the whole space has been adjusting to the economic downturn, which of course impacts the advertising that supports so much of this activity.

Jeremy addressed many of the questions you'd expect from an audience no doubt made up largely of hopeful bloggers. I followed his company early on, but not recently, and it's nice to see that there are models here for bloggers and companies like this to make it in our brave new world of digital media. It's still not clear to me how the quality of content or integrity of the bloggers can really be monitored in a network such as theirs, nor how you get off the slippery slope of fact-based journalism vs. opinion-based blogging.

I know they have some basic editorial guidelines and QC, but I still have a fundamental issue with trying to monetize user-generated content that has no true peer-review process. It's the same problem that YouTube has, and as long as the model stays this way and the hosting costs don't put you out of business (remember, there will be no shortage of people willing to do this. But is there money to made here?

It's the $64K question, of course, and I saw glimmers last night that b5media has some ideas about how to do this, even as advertising falls off. A lot of this has to do with moving beyond the atomized world of individual bloggers with individual followings, and creating more integrated communities that generate new forms of value from collective knowledge. That's where the social media phenomenon comes in, and when these pieces get mashed together, I can see things getting to the next level - Blogging 2.0 I guess - where everyone makes money, and there's dynamic, multimedia, real-time content that people will pay money for. I would - wouldn't you?

With that said, I've always been very wary of how the Internet seems to legitimize any form of writing, just like how being seen on TV magically makes you important. I guess we just have to accept that anything goes on the Web, and it's up to the readers to decide what's real and what's crap. Well, it is all free, so you get what you pay for in the end, and that's why we pay to subscribe to newspapers - although, the latter looks to be on shaky ground these days. I'd better stop now - there's just way too much to talk about here, and hey, nobody pays me to write this stuff. :-)

Anyhow, about 130 people turned out, and it was a very friendly crowd. As one might expect from this group, some people have posted reviews already, and you can check them out here. And after that, you might want to consider looking into your own local Meetup groups - looks like these things are everywhere.

Project GhostNet - Canada (and Google) Saves the World From Cyber-Spying - Again!

Wow, what a story. While most people I know are at either VoiceCon or CTIA this week, this one is worth staying home for. Also, I'm sure all the Skype followers are focused today on the news about working with the iPhone - and that IS a big story. However - for very different reasons - I'm sure you'll find this one of interest too.

This was a front page story in today's Globe and Mail, and no doubt many other Canadian dailies. I don't particularly follow cyber-crime, but this story is pretty incredible, and for the VoIP crowd there's an important Skype tangent. This will make a great thriller movie some day (maybe I should write it!) with all kinds of angles that normally don't have much to do with one another - China/Tibet, cyber-spying Toronto, Canada, Google and Skype. Are you intrigued? Read on, please.

In short, a team of academics/tech researchers based at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies, discovered a Dr. Evil-like cyber-spying network with global implications. The threat is largely around how data that is sensitive to Tibet's security is being poached and monitored from PC's all over the world, and how many of the links point to servers located in China. I'll stop there - am sure you can imagine for yourself just how charged these issues and allegations are. Phew!

I'll leave the politics aside, but as the reports describe, it's a story that took a life of its own with one small discovery leading to many others, and finally to the news that went public today. I'm no hacker, but can appreciate how complex these things are, and how you have to think like a hacker to reveal the Rosetta Stone that gets you on the trail to the source.

Incredibly, the breakthrough that cracked the code was not an ingenious repeat of what went into Colossus (the famous Bletchley Park-developed computer that solved the code of Nazi messages - arguably saving Britain from defeat in WWII) - but a simple Google search!!! Amazing, Mr. Smart, as Harry Hoo would have said to Agent 86 in his slow, incredulous manner.

If that doesn't get you going, I don't know what else will. There's a lot to this story, and I'll steer you straight to the article from today's paper. I love citing the online edition of stories because you also get the reader comments. At last count there was well of over 500 comments, so if cyber-spying is your thing, you could be reading for a while.

This story should be of huge interest to anyone working in PC/Internet security, as it highlights just how vulnerable we can be. As smart as we think we are, the bad guys are often smarter, but in the end - and here's the scary part - nobody is smarter than Google! What does it say about cyberspace when an operation this sophisticated can ultimately be exposed by searching on Google? Sure makes you wonder what else about our personal/private lives is just a few clicks away from those don't have the best of intentions.

So many implications to consider here, but I want to just touch on a couple here - and perhaps this will lead to some interesting dialog about other things...

First, waving the flag, it's great to say that this discovery/expose came from Canada, primarily Toronto, and some from Ottawa. The article provides quite a bit of detail about them, but the key players are Nart Villeneuve, Greg Walton and Ron Deibert from the lab at U of T, and the Ottawa-based SecDev Group.

Second - here's where the Skype connection comes in. This isn't the first time China has been associated with compromised data security. Last fall, just after the Beijing Olympics, there was an unsettling discovery about how Skype traffic was being monitored in China. Ugh. I posted about it, and the story was widely covered in the media and blogosphere.

So why am I dragging Skype back into this messy place again? Well - the same team at U of T that just exposed this cyber-spy operation also discovered what was happening to Skype in China. I know what you're thinking --- if they're smart enough to do GhostNet, when you've got a cyber-spy problem, who ya gonna call?