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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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Sustainable datacenter region coming to Sweden in 2021, accelerating the country’s digital transformation

Microsoft is investing in Sweden thanks to the Scandinavian country’s strong commitment to sustainability and innovation.

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In May of last year, Microsoft announced plans to develop new data centers in Sweden. The goal? Making them “among the most sustainably designed and operated in the world.”

The company is now making good on their pledge with a press release from November 24, confirming they’ll launch a “world-class, sustainable datacenter region in Sweden in 2021 with presence in Gävle Sandviken and Staffanstorp.”

Investment details

The news comes on the heels of Microsoft’s announcement of a significant digital transformation investment in Greece, involving the construction of new datacenters. This also includes a plan to skill approximately 100,000 people in Greece in digital technologies by 2025.

“Building on Microsoft’s 35-year history in Sweden and strong partnerships across the energy, manufacturing and retail sectors, we are looking forward to delivering the Microsoft Cloud from this new datacenter region in 2021,” said Jean-Philippe Courtois, Executive VP and President of Microsoft Global Sales, Marketing and Operations.

“We believe that digital transformation should always be both inclusive and sustainable.”

Elaborating further, Hélène Barnekow — General Manager of Microsoft Sweden — explained that Sweden is an ideal environment for such an investment because of its renowned leadership in sustainability, innovation, and gender equality:

“It is one of the places in the world where IT and tech have the greatest potential to create new opportunities for the individual, the organization and society, she said.

“In this time of change, we invest in the digital infrastructure and our Swedish ecosystem to accelerate digital transformation that will empower public and private companies to innovate, providing a strong digital foundation for the country’s future growth,”

As a result of these datacenters, Microsoft explains, Swedish businesses can “empower employees, engage customers, transform products and optimize operations — all through connected experiences and supported by advanced data privacy and security.”

Microsoft will also invest in skills development, providing digital skills training for up to 150,000 Swedes. 

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Investing in digital resiliency

A new index from IDC shows growth in cloud, collaboration, and security investment.

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Is your business digitally resilient? 

IDC’s new Digital Resiliency Investment Index is a look at the progress of organizations in their investment towards digital resilience. This is especially important now with this year’s digital transformation acceleration.

Results from the initial index show an overall steady increase in investment toward resiliency. 

Organizations have placed priority in cloud, collaborative, and digital transformation projects. Thanks to the pandemic-related shift to work-from-home and the aforementioned increase in cloud adoption, significant investments have been made in security.

According to IDC prediction, investment toward digital resiliency will increase in 2021, in tandem with economic recovery.

In terms of geography, digital resiliency investment had the fastest growth in the Asia/Pacific region. While US investment increased in October, Europe’s had a slight decline in the same period — as the continent was experiencing a significant surge in COVID cases and restrictions. 

Background

Two factors make up the index:

  • Digital Core Investments, described by IDC as “spending on the core components of digital resiliency: cloud, security, collaborative support for remote workers, and digital transformation projects.”
  • Digital Innovation Investments, which are “measured using a monthly survey of enterprises on their current and anticipated IT investment focus, including how much new or reallocated spending is targeted at digital resiliency and business acceleration versus crisis response measures.”  

“Digital resiliency refers to an organization’s ability to rapidly adapt to business disruptions by leveraging digital capabilities to not only restore business operations, but also capitalize on the changed conditions,” explains Stephen Minton, VP in IDC’s Customer Insights & Analysis group. 

Organizational success in the midst of a global pandemic has largely hinged on the ability to react quickly to change, he says. The difference between rapid adaptation and simply responding to disruption? A plan.

“Investments in digital capabilities not only enable an organization to adapt to the current crisis but also to capitalize on the changed conditions.”

Looking ahead

“The next several months may put increased pressure on some organizations to respond to second waves of COVID infections and economic lockdowns, which will be reflected in our monthly surveys throughout the winter,” adds Minton. 

“What we have learned already this year is that the organizations which were among the early adopters of cloud, digital, and collaborative technologies were best-positioned for a crisis no one could have predicted.”

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Digital transformation for economic recovery

“With the right steps and actions, businesses and governments can take the crisis as an opportunity to build for the future,” explain two World Bank economists.

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Digital transformation is having a moment. 

Over and over, widespread reports and surveys show that — in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — DX efforts have accelerated. “Business-savvy CIOs who deploy highly adaptive strategies and technology to rapidly respond to the impact on their firm’s operations and customers will lead from the front,” explains Forrester’s recent Predictions 2021 report.

Can the momentum keep going? How can DX be leveraged so everyone can be better off, post-COVID? 

As two World Bank economists argue in Harvard Business Review, “technological advancements were already changing the world over the past two decades,” and that in the midst of threats from automation and offshoring, it’s important to realize that tech can act as a job creator for economic recovery. 

According to Federica Saliola (Lead Economist in the Jobs Group of the World Bank and co-Director of the World Development Report 2019) Asif Islam (Senior Economist for the Middle East and North Africa Region of the World Bank Group), “to reshape technology as a job creator, it’s important to understand what, exactly, the current wave of technology is changing, and how policymakers and businesses can adapt to it.”

Where we were

The economists laid out three foundational truths about the pre-COVID state of technology:

  1. It has always been a disruptor. Tech has been “challenging the traditional boundaries of firms, changing global value chains and the geography of jobs.”
  2. As tech evolved, there have been massive changes in what skills are needed by a successful workforce. “The premium for skills that cannot be replaced by robots has been increasing,” they explain. What are these in-demand skills? Critical thinking and socio-behavioral skills, for starters, as well as adaptable skills. This leads to point three.
  3. Thanks to tech, the very nature of work has been changing over the last few years. The standard of permanent and full-time work has given way to a gig economy.

What’s next?

Simply put, “it is likely that the pandemic will reinforce these pre-existing trends and increase the urgency of corresponding policy responses,” explain Saliola and Islam.

Digital-first companies are thriving, the gig economy certainly isn’t going anywhere, and “firms may also have more incentive to invest in automation and reshore production to shield against value chain disruption.”

The aforementioned barrage of surveys and reports showing the acceleration of DX efforts reported on the mostly-successful shift to work-from-home. Saliola and Islam reference World Bank and World Economic Forum reports that show (unsurprisingly) positions and organizations that have put WFH measures in place are more prevalent in wealthier countries and regions, and that women and young people are more likely to hold positions where WFH isn’t feasible. 

Ultimately, Saliola and Islam explain, organizations and governments have to turn to policy to ensure that digital transformation can lead to a more successful economic recovery.

What does this look like? Reskilling and upskilling on the part of businesses, and “incentives and regulations to infrastructure projects and taxation” for governments. 

It’s similar to the approach of the recent OECD report showing that DX is critical for recovery in Latin America and the Caribbean — but on a global scale. 

“Technology can be a boon to society if businesses and governments prepare and adapt,” they write. “With the right steps and actions, businesses and governments can take the crisis as an opportunity to build for the future.”

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