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Businesses need to prepare for AI revolution – and that means understanding it first: U of T experts

Office buildings in Toronto's financial district (photo by James G via Flickr)

Artificial intelligence is poised to forever change the business world – from self-driving trucks to stores that ship products before customers buy them – but executives still have a lot to learn about the technology and how to successfully implement it.

That’s what prompted Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, all professors at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, to write a book called Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence, which looks at the opportunities and risks associated with the technology. 

It’s also why Rotman said this week it would offer an “intensive” three-day course for executives on the same subject. It will be taught by Agrawal, Gans and Goldfarb on March 27-29.

“AI sounds very scary – it could be Skynet or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or maybe C-3PO, which is a bit gentler,” says Goldfarb (left), who is a Rotman professor of marketing. 

“But the technologies everyone’s excited about now are not truly intelligent machines. They are predictions technologies – technologies that make machines much better at prediction than they used to be.”

While that doesn’t sound nearly so exciting on its face, Goldfarb assures the impact on the business world will be profound. 

To take one example, Goldfarb says AI may soon make it possible for e-retailers to anticipate customer needs so accurately they can start shipping products before people actually click to order them, meaning no more waiting for days for online orders to arrive.

Amazon calls it “anticipatory shipping” and first filed a patent on it six years ago.  

“The technology is really exciting and it will change the way a lot of organizations operate,” says Goldfarb. “But it will change it in very specific ways. It’s only understanding what the technology can and can’t do that allows you to figure it out.” 

Goldfarb says he and his fellow co-authors are better versed than most when it comes to understanding AI’s capabilities and limitations. Why? The three have essentially held front row seats to the AI revolution at U of T, which is home to pioneering researchers like University Professor Emeritus and deep learning "godfather" Geoffrey Hinton.

At the same time, all three are involved with the Creative Destruction Lab, a seed-stage accelerator that was founded by Agrawal in 2011 and specializes in scaling up AI-powered startups. Among the lab’s graduates are companies like Deep Genomics, which uses AI to aid in drug discovery for genetic disorders.

The book, due out in April, is already receiving praise from prominent people. 

“This is the best book yet on what may be the best technology that has come along,” Larry Summers, a professor at Harvard University (and former president) who was once U.S. Treasury Secretary and a chief economist the World Bank, is quoted as saying on the book's promotional website. Similarly, Dominic Barton, a global managing partner at McKinsey & Co. and head of the federal government’s advisory council on economic growth, is quoted calling it a “pathbreaking” book. 

As for the three-day course, Goldfarb says the goal is to get senior management thinking about how AI can be benefit their organizations and how to go about implementing it. 

“The biggest danger is that you invest in AI, but don’t really understand what it can do for you,” he says. “Or, because you don’t understand it, you don’t invest properly – or you don’t invest at all.”