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mesh conference goes deep on AI, with experts focusing in on training, ethics, and risk

The mix of topics is a major part of the appeal. So is the opportunity to have genuine conversations.

Photo by DX Journal
Photo by DX Journal

The mix of topics is a major part of the appeal. So is the opportunity to have genuine conversations with senior leaders, and doers, across so many industries for two days.

Day one of the mesh conference was all about navigating innovation, privacy policies, and diversity in a tech-driven world, and day two was all about artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on media, marketing, business and society.

AI is everywhere, but this day hit different. 

“I sat beside a marketer this morning who said he came to mesh because he was interested in the topics, but that he also knew lots about the subject matter so he wasn’t sure how much he’d take away,” said mesh attendee, Sarah Coleman who travelled from Calgary to see mesh in Toronto. 

“But after a full day of talks, he said to me that he was totally surprised by the cross-industry perspectives shared, and he walked away from the first day with thoughts he had never considered. For me, that’s the biggest value of mesh and it’s why I travelled across the country for my second mesh conference this year.”

Day two opened up with a frank discussion about the training of artificial intelligence (AI) and data sources with Elena Yunusov, AI strategy and marketing leader with the Human Feedback Foundation. 

Yunusov recently started the foundation to crowdsource the human feedback layer that’s missing from private AI models. Private models will continue and make decisions we won’t agree with, she said, but open source initiatives offer the chance for more innovation and better-informed applications.

“We should have more say about how AI is shaped and developed,” said Yunusov. 

There are a handful of models influencing us in ways we may not understand. But the Human Feedback Foundation is a small, but mighty open-source project trying to make AI less toxic and more empathetic. 

Photo by DX Journal

Use human feedback to bring the human voice back into data

After opening remarks, Yunusov continued the AI discussion with Darnel Moore, founder and CEO of Distinct.ly, who sees technology as a tool to connect with people. “We need a way for people to see each other and for businesses to see those people,” said Moore. 

Businesses just want to see the data point — not its context. But cognitive bias tells us that time, place, and situation influences people’s decisions, so the data means nothing without context. 

Moore said somewhere along the line people became a bug, rather than a feature, for businesses and that needs to change. 

“It’s important to get yourself out of the loop of data and buzzwords,” he Moore. 

It’s hard when you’re driving hard and fast not to attach yourself to buzzwords. But it’s not about pitching, selling, or moving your product — it’s about connecting with people.

Both Yunusov and Moore expressed puzzlement around the anxiety many people have around AI handling routine tasks. 

“Machinery is levelling human beings up from the mundane,” said Moore. People can now be more creative and learn in ways that weren’t possible before, he added.

“We have agency in this and the tools we never had before to get us to the next stages of that journey,” added Yunusov. 

We’re living through a bit of a reckoning in tech, she notes. Things are going to change, but how they change should be up to us. 

“Change is part of the human experience and we’re just doing it with different tools now,” said Yunusov. 

Photo by DX Journal

AI is a very divisive concept

Rika Nakazawa, global vice-president with NTT’s New Ventures and Innovation team, joined mesh fresh from COP28’s World Climate Summit in Dubai where there were two camps — one that believed AI is going to be the end of our ability to attain sustainability goals, and the other that thought it would bring the dawn of a new horizon. 

Amy Peck, founder and CEO of EndeavorXR, agreed. On one end of the spectrum, it’s the great saviour. We’ll be able to leverage it and achieve all our goals, she said. On the other end is the doom and gloom. 

Peck said business leaders need to start understanding data better, urging for bias-free data to be the foundation for AI training algorithms. We’re equal in our humanity, said Peck, so we must learn to embrace our differences rather than vilify them.

“AI is an overnight success, 80 years in the making,” said Nakazawa. “There’s nothing artificial about artificial intelligence.” 

It’s all made — binary code is mimicking our brain. 

“We have to retrain ourselves to work with AI and not just hand over our tasks to AI,” Peck said.

Photo by DX Journal

We needed to manage and prevent food waste

For this event, the mesh conference partnered with Second Harvest to ensure unused food served at lunch would not go to waste. Using Second Harvest technology, unused packaged lunches were donated to a local charity.

“It’s the eHarmony of food,” joked Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest during a fireside discussion. 

Nikkel was joined by Winston Rosser, VP of Food Rescue Operations at Second Harvest, who demoed the technology built to help conquer food insecurity and food redistribution.

Rosser explained that the app connects a variety of donors, from small retailers to major grocery stores, with local, non-profit charities who need food. Before the platform was built, huge trucks were sent to pick up 20 lbs of food from a grocer and take it across the city — an option that was not sustainable. Now, donors can easily connect with one of more than 61,000 charities via the platform.

Rosser also shared some startling stats:

  • 58% of all the food produced in Canada is lost or wasted, mostly ending up in landfill.
  • 3.9 million Canadians are food insecure.
  • Only 4% of food businesses were donating food.

Since the launch of the app, Second Harvest has flipped everything on its head. In 2016 the organization rescued nine million pounds of food, but after the app was deployed, that number skyrocketed — in 2022, nearly 75 million pounds of food was rescued in 2022. Last year Second Harvest kept food worth $234 million out of landfill. 

When asked why there’s so much food waste to begin with, Nikkel offered a sober response: “We don’t value food,” she said, adding that we’ve commoditized food to the point where we don’t value it like we used to. An example: many people will buy food in a two-for-one deal even if they don’t need it, and oftentimes it’s simply thrown out.

Photo by DX Journal

Adoption requires sponsorship within the organization

Afternoon discussions on day two of the mesh conference also looked at laggard industries, and professionals who can be resistant to change.

Colleen Pound, founder and CEO of Proxure, and Mary Jane Dykeman, managing partner at INQ Law, talked about the difficult task of integrating AI in law and healthcare — two industries that can be averse to technological innovation.

“Their aversion creates a lot of white space to work in,” said Pound, adding that progress looks like evolution rather than revolution. 

Dykeman agreed, adding that change in situations like this often takes a foothold when a series of low-risk initiatives are the starting point. Ultimately, they can lead to larger transformations.

In addition, privacy and data security are major issues for both industries that need to be managed first, Pound said. Data management is the starting point.

“Better data and better processes drive better business outcomes,” Pound said.

Photo by DX Journal

AI is what you make it

The day’s closing panel included a conversation on AI in media, featuring mesh co-founder and media pundit, Mathew Ingram.

Ingram joked that he would be terrified if he was starting his journalism career today. As the chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, Ingram noted that distributing information is easier today, but distributing disinformation is also easier.

“The quality of the disinformation doesn’t matter,” Ingram said, saying people believe disinformation because they want to believe it. 

“A nine-year-old could think of a more plausible conspiracy theory than some of the ones I’ve seen people believe,” he said. 

Chris Hogg, president and founder of the content marketing firm Digital Journal Group (DJG), said he sees B2B content marketing rolling back to what high-quality journalism used to offer. Hogg said success can now require businesses to produce less content, and instead focus on quality and distribution to stand out and drive results.

The fireside discussion also looked at the risks AI poses to the media industry. 

AI may not always be able to make things better, but it has great applications as a technology to support journalists. 

“It’s a tool that you can use and do things that help you and are valuable,” said Ingram, noting that transcription, story idea generation, and automating mundane tasks are big benefits offered by AI.

While there are considerable risks with OpenAI’s accuracy, deep fakes, and fake AI content, Ingram said the technology is still important.

“I’m a big believer in the power of individuals to change things,” he said. “There are things we thought would be inconsequential, but have changed the world, for better or worse.”

Join us next year in Calgary for the mesh conference, June 11-12, 2024. The two-day event then returns to Toronto the week of October 21, 2024.

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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