Artificial intelligence does not mean pushing a button and waiting for a robot to jump out.

“When you say ‘artificial intelligence,’ some people jump to the worst possible scenario that technology and computers are going to take over the world,” says Erica Sietsma, COO at Scottsdale-based Digital Air Strike. “What they don’t realize is how many really kind of basic functions that artificial intelligence helps us with every day.”

As artificial intelligence (AI) adoption grows in Arizona, Az Business sat down with three experts from the world of technology for an AZ Tech Talk panel discussion about how AI is impacting the state’s business community, what companies can do to stay ahead of the competition, and how artificial intelligence can make businesses better — and more efficient — at what they do. 

Joining Sietsma in the discussion is Robert Brown, managing director of BDO Digital; and Dr. Dwight Farris, professor at Grand Canyon University.

Az Business: How do you define artificial intelligence as it pertains to your business?

Erica Sietsma: We use artificial intelligence, but we’re not building robots or anything like that. Since we’re trying to engage with consumers, we use a myriad of different functions of artificial intelligence. We use cognitive services to digest and analyze any of the natural language communications that we’re having with consumers to give us better analysis of what the consumer really wants and their intentions. Then, we build out predictive analytics so that the next time we engage with that consumer or someone similar to that consumer, we know how to better engage on behalf of the business. Especially now during COVID, it makes it tough to truly provide that great customer experience when everything is virtual. So we help power that and a huge part of that is leveraging artificial intelligence.

Robert Brown: At BDO, we look at artificial intelligence as really an enabling technology rather than specifically a core application. AI is very good at being trained to look at data and predict particular outcomes, particular models and ideas in terms of information and insight that wouldn’t necessarily be gleaned from a normal report. So artificial intelligence is very good in terms of a core technology, but it requires an application, an interface, as well as an ability to access portions of data, and a training module that really takes the technology and creates the outcome.

Dwight Farris: With education, there are several aspects of artificial intelligence. With the virtualization of everything now, cybersecurity is a high concern. What we have tried to convey to students, and we’re talking computer science, computer programmers, and cybersecurity students, is that we need to understand what artificial intelligence and cybersecurity is. And if you look at cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, you’re talking about data, about processing data, and processing high amounts of data. And that’s what’s happening in our world now with the pandemic. So we’re utilizing artificial intelligence along with human intelligence to make sure these data are processed correctly.

AB: How are you utilizing artificial intelligence in your businesses?

DW: In education, we are looking for AI to develop some of the environments that we’re using for teaching. We’re looking at how students are responding. We’re getting together data on responses to remote learning. And we’re using artificial intelligence to let us know what’s actually effective and what’s not effective in education. That’s pretty big across all of higher education — how are we going to develop these ongoing environments based on these new models of learning?

RB: At BDO, we look at artificial intelligence to really focus on how we can gain insights to information that’s within the business and to create data-driven outcomes. Like a human being, which has a cognitive capability, we have an ability to understand data and interpret data. Artificial intelligence is really going to be utilized to do that very same thing. In many cases, as we, as humans, look at AI as that core technology, we have to train AI as a core technology to do what we, as humans, can do. The benefit of doing that is it provides scalability. It provides repeat repetition in the ability to collect data, assimilate data, and actually make an outcome. These are obviously very key for things such as accounting systems where we need to look at data and interpret data, not just saying what the numbers are, but what do the numbers mean?

Erica Sietsma

ES: Our suite of solutions really runs the gamut of every step of the customer journey from awareness solutions and even in advertising and getting you the right message at the right time. That’s always been the age old adage of advertising, but it’s a lot more complicated in today’s day and age. If something’s highly, highly relevant and highly, highly targeted to you, you are more likely to convert. So we use AI day-to-day to power every solution, so that when you’re having that conversation, it is more appropriate to you. We’re answering the things the way you would want them to be answered or giving you options that are more relevant to you.

AB: How has artificial intelligence made you better at what you do as a company?

RB: We look at artificial intelligence in terms of making people better, and people are part of the business systems and processes that make up a company. Oftentimes, we look at people and think we need to hire more people to solve more and more problems as companies scale and get larger. Well, those people, in often cases, become data gatherers — very intelligent people who look for pieces of information they can gather and then roll into a report that then gets consumed by someone else. Artificial intelligence is a core technology provided into systems that these data collectors use. These data collectors can now be converted into what we call data proctors. Because they understand the nuances of the data, what’s being collected, artificial intelligence doesn’t necessarily replace their job, but it moves that data collector to become that of a data proctor.

ES: The solutions we provide are more targeted. They’re more relevant to our consumers. It’s a better customer experience and it’s less humans. So even for ourselves, we’ve been able to automate our own internal processes to make our teams more efficient. With natural language processing, our solutions are able to propose responses. We are getting to the point where soon, we’ll be able to just push the response to the site. ’Hey, we know this one is right. It’s a review. This was a great experience. Thanks so much.’ You don’t necessarily need a human responding to every single one of those, right? There’s a myriad of different ways you can handle that. Now, an upset customer, that’s where we want to focus human attention. You want to use your human assets who are the most valuable piece of the company in the best way possible so that they enjoy their jobs.

Dwight Farris

DF: Machine learning, in case you don’t know, is essentially AI applied to all these devices that tend to learn about human behavior. And this is programming, data processing, and we’re teaching to this. A lot of our students are very interested. They think that AI is magic. When you et into the area of programming, they say, ‘Oh, no, this can’t be what AI is.’ But that is what AI is. It’s high level programming. It’s math. It’s data processing. And it’s very, very effective. And it’s becoming more and more a part of how we handle just about all the data that we’re processing, which is increasing.

AB: How do you see AI changing your businesses over the next several years?

ES: It’s really in the last six months where we’ve seen the biggest leaps and bounds. I think it’s been way more toyed with like, ‘Oh, can we do this?’ Now, looking at the next year or two years and it’s game, set, match. I think we will be able to do all the things we’ve been kind of talking about as a company and as a consumer engagement solutions provider. We see this kind of mecca where our clients can have great visibility and improve their business. AI will make our clients lives’ easier. It helps them save money in advertising. We can tell you exactly which clients to target, which ones not to worry about, and which ones are ready to buy based on buying history.

DF: Off-the-shelf products are becoming AI driven and that is what our students are focusing on — building those products for corporations. So once they get out there, they can actually showcase what they’ve actually been a part of, both as a student and even as an intern or whatever. Remember that AI, the way we view it now, is relatively new. Its usefulness has increased quite a bit in the last five years particularly. And with our current conditions, with data security, cybersecurity, all of this, it’s increasing even further. And our students and a lot of students across many institutions are at the cusp of helping those particular products become a reality.

Robert Brown

RB: We can actually use artificial intelligence to change the way we conduct business, rather than just the way we collect information about the business. So we look at things like customer sentiment analysis, where we look at the conversations of people out there and they may be saying things that are being transcribed to text, that are being posted on social, but they may actually have a very different meaning than what is actually being presented in text. They always say, never have a discussion with somebody where you want to have a meaningful outcome through email because in many cases, it can be misconstrued or misinterpreted. Well, artificial intelligence can actually improve that because it can understand emotion and sentiment and analysis, not totally the way a human being does, but it can actually understand and suggest outcomes that may be involved in how the business is actually engaging the marketplace, as an example.

AB: We want a bold prediction from each of you. How do you see artificial intelligence having its biggest impact on Arizona in the next five or 10 years?

RB: Whether it’s healthcare, manufacturing or the hospitality industry in Scottsdale, AI has the ability to change the way that businesses operate. We’re not suggesting that artificial intelligence will be a robot at the front desk when you check into Scottsdale’s resorts, but it may also be a technology that’s utilized to determine the client’s requirements before they check in. What are their needs? What are their desires? What are their emotions? In many cases, AI can actually create customer profiling based on visits to the restaurants or spa, charging habits, and the types of products they consume so their customer journey is better enabled through the use of artificial intelligence. So artificial intelligence can be utilized to change the way that people visit, engage, live, operate in that state based upon how they live their lives and go about their business.

ES: I’ve been very impressed over the last five years as I’ve gone to different conferences with how much Arizona has invested in technology and technology companies. Digital Air Strike is born and bred here. And I think that support is going to power the future of our AI economy. I think a lot of Arizona business owners are very open to trying new things. They’re very open to integrating new solutions, new technologies. I think that’s going to bode really well for the state, plus it’s a great place to live. So. hopefully, we will have all of that talent graduating from our universities and staying in the state.

DF: I think we will do things smarter, and I’m using that term loosely because we have smartphones, we have smart refrigerators, etc. But behind those items and those devices, it’s all artificial intelligence. I think that is going to grow. And we’re actually going to recognize that this is actually useful. It’s not scary. It’s not Terminator. It’s actually useful. And I think we’re going to understand that better. We’re in the pandemic now and we’re like, ‘We’re never going to be normal,’ but I think we’ll recognize what technology is going to do for us and artificial intelligence will be at the forefront.