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Q&A: Thomson Reuters Canada’s Dr. Khalid Al-Kofahi on applying AI to business challenges

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Artificial intelligence is impacting on a range of businesses and professions, moving from something niche to an activity that is part and parcel of everyday operations. Dr. Khalid Al-Kofahi, of Thomson Reuters, provides some insights.

Dr. Khalid Al-Kofahi is a leading artificial intelligence expert and the Vice President of Research and Development at Thomson Reuters Canada. Dr. Al-Kofahi heads up the company’s corporate R&D work globally and he leads its Toronto-based Centre for AI and Cognitive Computing.

Dr. Al-Kofahi has expertise in applying AI to help Thomson Reuters’ global customers unearth key information that help to solve their business challenges. Al-Kofahi has developed AI algorithms that have transformed the way professionals carry out their jobs.

To understand how AI is reshaping businesses activities, DX Journal caught up by Dr. Khalid Al-Kofahi.

Digital Journal: How important is artificial intelligence becoming for business?

Khalid Al-Kofahi: I don’t look at Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) in terms of a degree of importance – they are. I think of them as critical for medium and large businesses, regardless of their sectors.

AI and ML technologies are either necessary to optimize how businesses create and deliver value to their customers or part of the value proposition itself. In my opinion, businesses with a large digital footprint fall into the second category.

For example, in the information industry AI is necessary for content aggregation, enhancement, organization and delivery – at scale. AI-enabled applications deliver content, data and insights to knowledge workers within the context of their tasks and often personalized to customers’ preferences.

And the figures speak for themselves: McKinsey & Company expects global economic impact of AI to be between USD $7.1 trillion to $13.1 trillion by 2025. In Canada, AI is expected to add an additional CAD $636.1 billion to the economy by 2035, according to Accenture.

DJ: Which types of sectors are set to see the greatest AI growth?

Al-Kofahi: The obvious ones are healthcare, education and transportation. Beyond that and in industries closer to my lines of business, the financial sector has been an early adopter of AI technology and I expect the growth trend to continue, if not accelerate. The tax and accounting industry will see the biggest disruption.

Not necessarily at the job level, but at the task level (e.g., within audits). Businesses – across sectors – operate in increasingly more complex regulatory environments, thus driving demand for AI-enabled applications to help them understand and comply with relevant rules and regulations. This, for example, was the driver for our most recent product, Data Privacy Advisor, which we developed jointly with IBM Watson to help data privacy professionals stay on top of those ever-changing regulations, keeping their organizations compliant.

DJ: What types of things can businesses do with data analytics?

Al-Kofahi: Every organization accumulates data and the trick is understanding how it can be leveraged for business advantage. The right data analysis can unlock business critical insights such as customer buying habits or even anticipating a fault in your machinery before the error even occurs, preventing costly repairs and downtime.

For example: let’s say a Toronto-based retailer wants to open an outlet in Calgary. By gathering information from existing customers – including preferences, age ranges, socio-economic groups and spending habits – the company can run an analysis and create a general profile of those most likely to purchase at their retail shop. These profiles can be compared and analyzed against demographics in Calgary to pinpoint locations where there is a high concentration of likely customers. Ultimately, leveraging data this way helps to inform a company expansion plan.

DJ: What advantages does AI hold for the legal sector?

Al-Kofahi: The legal industry – despite its rather conservative business model – has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of AI technologies (relative to its size) and it will continue to provide fertile ground for AI scientists and engineers to have an impact. Did you know that the first commercially available search engine that deploys probabilistic rank retrieval was developed in the legal sector back in 1993? I have been developing AI and ML enabled applications for the industry since 1995 and found the sector to be extremely rich ground for AI.

The reason law is so interesting to AI researchers is that it touches upon all aspects of personal and business worlds. You have rules and regulations that govern acts and transactions. Some of these rules have been codified, others are still subject to a significant degree of interpretations. This challenge makes it interesting to natural language processing and knowledge engineering and reasoning.

Attorneys and judges often think by analogy, applying the same legal principle to many factual situations. This makes legal research a particularly interesting and challenging problem. But the rules (law) change over time through legislation and supersession and the technology needs to adapt accordingly. The adversarial nature of the law raises sentiment and polarity to a whole new level. The language you find in case law can be about childcare, medical malpractice, contracts, personal finance, tax obligations, which makes this one of the most interesting problems for NLP researchers.

These are just some examples of where AI and ML are already having a significant impact on the practice of law. Other opportunities include those focusing on reducing the cost and complexity of the law – including online dispute resolution systems, contract review, eDiscover and so on.

DJ: How about a different field, like journalism?

Al-Kofahi: AI can deliver huge advantages to journalists and we’re already seeing the results in our company’s own news division. Over the last 165 years, Reuters earned a reputation for gathering quality information, producing news free of bias and getting it to readers the fastest. Those pillars are still very much a part of how the news division reports on events now. But in a connected and fast-moving world, the challenge of capturing and reporting on news at scale takes on a whole new meaning.

To address this challenge, we developed Reuters News Tracer – an AI powered platform that can capture events as they are reported around the world, filter out the noise (e.g., chat, spam), identify reporting of news worthy events, distinguish between reporting of ‘facts’ and opinions and then algorithmically assess the veracity of this reporting. Our journalists have been using this system, which allows them to consistently, and accurately, report on events well before any other news outlets publish their own accounts. In fact, over the last year Reuters has been first in more than 50 major news stories thanks to Tracer.

DJ: Does the promise of AI sometimes disappoint?

Al-Kofahi: Yes, of course. Sometimes disappointment is caused by hype and people and organizations talking about the future – even the distant future – in the present tense. Other times, it is due to lack of understanding of inherent biases of AI algorithms especially in task-critical applications. And other times because the technology may still need additional vetting and testing.

I am not sure if this falls under this category, but the race to build the first autonomous vehicle hinges on AI and it certainly feels like we are on the cusp of a breakthrough; however, there is still risk to human life. The reality is that developments will be incremental before that safety benchmark is fully achieved. This might seem slower than the pace of some other technological developments, but the outcomes will be worth the wait.

DJ: Please explain about your work with the Toronto-based Centre for AI and Cognitive Computing

Al-Kofahi: Thomson Reuters has been applying AI technologies in products for more than 25 years. The Toronto-based centre is part of our larger R&D team which I also lead. Together, our objective is to simplify and transform knowledge work, focusing on opportunities that could be enabled by AI and machine learning.

This includes how we collect, enhance and organize content. How we deliver this content to our customers (e.g., search, recommender systems and navigation) as well as a diverse set of vertical products and capabilities that addresses specific customer challenges (for example, the Data Privacy Advisor or Reuters News Tracer). Personally, I have been focusing on attracting top talent, establishing the right culture and operating rhythm and supporting the team to ensure they are able to utilize their skills to create value for our customers and our business.

DJ: Who is the Centre aimed at?

Al-Kofahi: Our customers are across the legal, financial and risk, tax and accounting and media sectors. We aim to develop ‘smart’ applications that delight our customers. These are applications that are responsive (to their input), that are task focused and customer aware; applications that are robust, proactive (when appropriate) and offer an intuitive experience. This requires us to develop advanced AI and ML capabilities ‘under the hood’, which means we must continue attracting and retaining the very best talent in the industry – and why this particular centre is based right here in Toronto.

DJ: What are the key projects that the Centre is working on?

Al-Kofahi: The best example of our most recent work was the launch of Data Privacy Advisor. But, let me assure you there is more to come. I’d be happy to come back and elaborate on some of these projects after we launch them.

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Canada’s next big act is training scaleups

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By Jack Derricourt & Chris Hogg

Jack Derricourt is the Managing Editor of Digital Journal and a contributing editor to DX Journal. Chris Hogg is the President of Digital Journal Group.

The Canadian technology landscape is booming.

Canadian companies took in $2.5 billion in funding in the first half of 2018, the strongest first half since 2000. Corporates have announced large-scale investment plans to invest in innovation and digital technology (CAE recently pegged $1 billion for the efforts) and post-secondary institutions are breaking ground to house future generations of talent (the University of Toronto is building a 14-storey building to be completed by 2021).

The Canadian technology landscape is ripening and readying for an influx and growth of more mature, internationally-focused ventures.

While scaleups make up less than five percent of Canadian companies, they create half of all new jobs in the country.

On September 26 in Toronto, Elevate ScaleUp will seek to provide helpful insights into the problems facing scaling companies. Presented by CIBC and Osler, the event features startup veterans sharing their experiences.

DX Journal spoke with Julia Kassam, Managing Director, CIBC Innovation Banking, to find out more about the next big act in Canada’s innovation space.

DX Journal: With innovation ecosystems forming across Canadian cities, what excites you the most for startups in Canada?

Julia Kassam: From coast to coast, we’ve hit our stride as a community. The Canadian startup ecosystem has never been stronger and it is launching Canada into the global spotlight. Success stories about scaling companies of all sizes, in different industries, are generating the attention of investors and aspiring entrepreneurs. We are gaining a reputation for being diverse, collaborative and competitive.

This means that Canada is no longer an occasional destination, but a critical location for international investors to regularly visit, and for global brands to establish roots and drive their own corporate growth.

DX Journal: Canadian policymakers have made strengthening the venture capital sector a priority, with the launch of Venture Capital Action Plan (VCAP) and Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative (VCCI) underway. What does that mean for startups and scaleups?

Kassam: After years of lobbying by the Canadian Venture and Private Equity Association (CVCA), the previous government took our sector’s advice and launched VCAP as an arms-length funding strategy. VCAP worked as designed; venture capital funds benefited from the capital raised and invested in several early-stage companies. The new funds that should be raised under VCCI will capitalize on that success and strengthen the sustainability of Canada’s venture capital ecosystem.

What this means for entrepreneurs is that the federal government recognizes that VCAP was an appropriate initiative, and that to fuel the innovation economy, companies need a robust venture capital ecosystem to move from startup mode to scaleup mode.

It’s a really strategic and exciting initiative because later-stage capital will help accelerate the growth for companies who need to overcome commercialization hurdles, expand into new markets and compete on a global scale.

DX Journal: Many startups struggle to scale because they don’t have the right senior talent. What is your sense of how well positioned Canada is with experienced leaders?

Kassam: Although Canada has established a reputation for developing world-class academics and innovators, we do need to attract experienced executive talent. Everything moves at an accelerated pace in a scaleup, and the business will bend and flex in ways it never has. Canada needs more leaders who know what it takes to grow globally and ensure scaleups are well-equipped to navigate and accelerate growth.

One big benefit Canada has that helps here is as a result of our proactive immigration policy – the ability for Canadian scaleups to attract skilled talent is getting easier; our country realizes that to keep pace with scaleups, concentrated efforts are needed to establish Canada as a global technology powerhouse.

DX Journal: Canada has also been able to attract tech titans such as Google to open up offices in Toronto. What role do they play in the scaleup economy?

Kassam: They serve as training ground, but also as a competitor for talent. In the best case, people learn what it takes to be part of a leading innovator while being trained by experienced executive talent at the local divisions of firms such as Cisco or Google. For scaling companies, the opportunity to pilot their innovation becomes a realistic opportunity which can flourish into a partnership that may lead to an acquisition. A big opportunity that emerges as a result of large tech companies choosing to set-up an office in Canada is an acceleration of human capital development for the ecosystem.

What we are also seeing more of is that global innovators are setting up their R&D centres in Canada. A great example this summer was Samsung announcing an AI Centre located within MaRS, led by a Toronto-based academic. Again, another opportunity for scaleups to be close to the heart of global innovation. That is huge potential waiting to be unleashed.

DX Journal: How is the Canadian startup ecosystem helping to train talent?

Kassam: Serial entrepreneurs and investors share mistakes and success stories which help shape and accelerate scaleups through collective learning. What truly makes the Canadian tech ecosystem unique is our mindset to foster entrepreneurial spirit; and a great example of how we do that is by bringing the startup community together.

Elevate, Canada’s largest tech festival and one that CIBC Innovation Banking is sponsoring, is the perfect example of creating the right information and network opportunities so that we can collectively benefit from the existing momentum in Canada’s innovation ecosystem and drive our entrepreneurial culture forward.


DX Journal:
What’s the next step for the Canadian scaleup story?

Kassam: Canadian scaleups will continue to tackle the unique challenges that come with scaling a business; however, they will think in a global context earlier than ever before. Scaleups need to strategically choose the right capital partners for their growth – ones that open doors to new markets. There needs to be an emphasis on attracting top talent earlier in the growth cycle to help drive international perspectives and opportunities.   

To hear more from industry leaders who have scaled real businesses (and have the scars to prove it), get a ticket for Elevate ScaleUp, happening September 26, 2018 in Toronto. Presented by CIBC Innovation Banking and Osler, the event will provide real insights from entrepreneurs and tech veterans who have spent years in the field, on everything from hiring, to financing, to distribution.

 

DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.

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Bumble launches fund for investing in female founders

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The popular dating and social networking app Bumble announced a new initiative Wednesday that will see it investing in women-led businesses.

Announced via a blog post from Bumble HQ, the new fund will focus on early-stage investments to women-led startups, particularly those run by women of colour and women from other traditionally underrepresented groups.

“The gender gap in venture capital is staggering, particularly for women founders of color. (B)umble, a tech company (with) an 85% female workforce, wants to be part of the solution, wrote Whitney Wolfe Herd, the CEO of Bumble, on Twitter. “Today we launch Bumble Fund to invest in women ignored by the establishment.”

The point of the fund is to help those founders raise capital for their ventures.

According to Forbes, Bumble has committed over $1 million so far, and says it will invest anywhere between $5,000 and $250,000 in the companies it selects as part of the fund.

Some businesses that the new fund has already committed to are: BeautyConCleo CapitalFemale Founders FundMahmee, and Sofia Los Angeles.

Mahmee is a “Headliner” from Backstage Capital, a VC firm run by founder Arlan Hamilton that invests in “underestimated” and underrepresented founders.

According to the Bumble blog post, the company isn’t stopping at the five commitments they’ve listed — they’re continuing to look for businesses to support, and recommend that interested parties download the Bumble app and get set up with the networking platform within, Bumble Bizz.

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Culture

#ScaleStrategy Q&A: Managing the Growth Bandwidth

Tech veteran Dean Hopkins on what it takes to scaleup — and down — in both startups and enterprise organizations

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Dean Hopkins, OneEleven
Dean Hopkins, Chief Growth Officer at OneEleven. - Photo by DX Journal
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#ScaleStrategy is produced by DX Journal and OneEleven. This editorial series delivers insights, advice, and practical recommendations to innovative and disruptive entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. Read the first part of the interview with Dean Hopkins here. 

While working at McKinsey in the 1990s, tech veteran Dean Hopkins first stepped into the world of the internet.

“This was 1993. No internet existed as we know it,” says Hopkins, now the Chief Growth Officer at OneEleven, recalling how he discovered the work of Marc Andreessen. “At that point in time, he was demonstrating his early browser concept and talking about how the future of the internet was going to be huge. I caught the bug and decided I would leave McKinsey and start my first company called Cyberplex.”

After a bit of a bumpy start, Cyberplex scaled quickly. “Cyberplex tripled every year and grew to 500 people with $50 million in revenue and $975 million market cap,” he says.

Then 2001 hit. “That was the peak of the cycle followed by a trough. It was the biggest learning experience of my career. I had to descale the company to survive,” he says. Over seven quarters, Hopkins took the team from 500 to 50 and brought the company back to profitability. He then  transitioned Cyberplex to new leadership and moved on to his next challenge.

For the next 12 years, Hopkins worked as a management consultant with his own boutique firm that was focused on driving global transformation initiatives for companies such as Thomson Reuters and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board.

With both entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial expertise, Hopkins is now applying his global growth skills to transform OneEleven’s unique scaleup model into a worldwide Scale-as-a-Service model.

Read what Hopkins has in store for OneEleven’s global growth.

We recently spoke to Hopkins about tough lessons he learned at  Cyberplex, how enterprise growth is different than startup growth, and how he’s applying these lessons to expanding the OneEleven model globally.

DX Journal: When you think back to your time when Cyberplex hit its inflection point, what did you learn about scaling?

Dean Hopkins: Culture and people were the two things that allowed us to handle both the steep trajectory both up and down. Those things got us through the crazy knee in the curve and probably more importantly, helped us when we needed to descale.

Attracting amazing people that became my partners in growth was the reason we were able to scale. I couldn’t have done it alone.

Secondly, we built a culture that was accustomed to scaling and had an appetite for growth. Our culture was about resilience, and scaling, and picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. We made it okay to make mistakes, then march on.

DX Journal: Why people and culture? Why isn’t it all of the other things?

Hopkins: It’s a great question. In a culture where the decision-making takes a long, protracted time, where risk-taking isn’t there, and where people have to analyze things to death before they can make a decision, scaling is impossible. People would crumble under the weight of scale because the number of things coming at them.

To scale, it’s important to trust that people are all working toward the same goals and are empowered to make decisions.

That’s where culture comes in. It becomes a culture that can tolerate the bandwidth of needs that come with growth. If I didn’t have both of those things — good people ready to make decisions and a culture where I allow them to do it — I would have failed to scale.

The other things like technology, offices, infrastructure, are secondary when you distill it down. Companies that are successful across different geographies, industries, offices, become that way through empowering their people and building a culture that tolerates growth.

DX Journal: When you moved out of Cyberplex and into Thomson Reuters and you were managing a large-scale transformation. How did you manage scale within an environment as big and complex as Thomson Reuters?

Hopkins: The first thing I noticed was pace slowed down dramatically. What used to take me a week or a month now took 6 to 8 or 12 months. Large organizations only have the capacity for so much change. Once I did get the ship to turn in a new direction, I moved a lot of people, revenue, cost, and dollars. I had to be patient enough to let it take hold. The experience was much more of a marathon where I had to think multiple chess moves ahead and let the game play out.

DX Journal: How do you know when to modify your approach or give up when dealing with  transformation in a large organization?

Hopkins: I didn’t do a great job of it at the beginning. I pushed an entrepreneurial agenda at an entrepreneurial pace, and very quickly ran headlong into blockers. I had to adapt and use an experimentation model. I tried different levels of throttle until I got to a point where the organization was willing to accept it. I learned to read the frustration on peoples’ faces saying “okay, no more, Dean. I can’t take any more of this” and built relationships with people where they were able to tell me that.

I was able to adapt and adjust my own style to better reflect the environment. Then over 12 years, I gradually increased the tolerance for risk-taking and for change within the organization. I would work with specific people to help them increase their ability to drive change. What was first gear early on, became second and third gear closer to the end of my tenure. Ultimately, the organization became much more comfortable with making change at a higher rate.

DX Journal: What’s a scale lesson you learned the hard way?

Hopkins: I learned to hire slowly and fire quickly based on fit. One rotten apple really can spoil the bunch. As part of this, I learned to listen very closely to my people. The people on my team knew about someone that didn’t fit long before I did. By listening, and taking quick action, I saw the immediate positive impact on culture.

Finally, I learned the value of getting out of the way. By fully trusting people, providing them good direction and support when needed, it activates them to reach their full potential. All of these were learned through many failed attempts, and I have the scar tissue to prove it.

DX Journal: What signals do you use to know you’re on the right path when you start to scale something and you’re trying to measure if it’s working?

Hopkins: One of the reasons we were able to survive at Cyberplex — both the growth and the decline — is that we had very good leading indicators of the business. We had invested heavily to try and understand what our funnel looked like, what our planned capacity was, and we had the metrics dialed in. Every month and every quarter, we constantly refined our ratios so we had a really good sense of what was coming. When things started falling off the cliff, we trusted our instruments and started acting accordingly.

Read more about Dean Hopkin’s plans for expanding OneEleven globally.

 

DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.

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