I’ve been passing on a lot of conferences lately – just too many trips to Vegas for my liking, and insufficient value for my time – but tend to drop in on ones that happen in Toronto, where I live. This week, it’s Big Data Toronto, held in conjunction with Connected Plus and AI Toronto.
Paul Zikopoulos, VP of big data systems at IBM gave a keynote on what cognitive, AI and machine learning mean to big data. He pointed out that no one has a problem collecting data – all companies are pros at that – but the problem is knowing what to do with it in order to determine and act on competitive advantage, and how to value it. He talked about some of IBM’s offerings in this area, and discussed a number of fascinating uses of AI and natural language that are happening in business today. There are trendy chatbot applications, such as Sephora’s lipstick selection bot (upload your selfie and a picture of your outfit to match to get recommendations and purchase directly); and more mundane but useful cases of your insurance company recommending that you move your car into the garage since a hailstorm is on the way to your area. He gave us a quick lesson on supervised and unsupervised learning, and how pattern detection is a fundamental capability of machine learning. Cognitive visual inspection – the descendent of the image pattern analysis algorithms that I wrote in FORTRAN about a hundred years ago – now happens by training an algorithm with examples rather than writing code. Deep learning can be used to classify pictures of skin tumors, or learn to write like Ernest Hemingway, or auto-translate a sporting event. He finished with a live demo combining open source tools such as sentiment analysis, Watson for image classification, and a Twitter stream into a Bluemix application that classified pictures of cakes at Starbucks – maybe not much of a practical application, but you can imagine the insights that could be extracted and analyzed in the same fashion. All of this computation doesn’t come cheap, however, and IBM would love to sell you a few (thousand) servers or cloud infrastructure to make it happen.
After being unable to get into three breakout sessions in a row – see my more detailed comments on conference logistics below – I decided to head back to my office for a couple of hours. With luck, I’ll be able to get into a couple of other interesting sessions later today or tomorrow.
A huge thumbs down to the conference organizers (Corp Agency), by the way. The process to pick up badges for pre-registered attendees was a complete goat rodeo, and took me 20+ minutes to simply pick up a pre-printed badge from a kiosk; the person staffing the “I-L” line started at the beginning of the Ks and flipped his way through the entire stack of badge to find mine, so it was taking about 2 minutes per person in our line while the other lines were empty. The first keynote of the day, which was only 30 minutes long, ran 15 minutes late. The two main breakout rooms were woefully undersized, meaning that it was literally standing room in many of the sessions – which I declined to attend because I can’t type while standing – although there was a VIP section with open seats for those who bought the $300 VIP pass instead of getting the free general admission ticket. There was no conference wifi or charging stations for attendees. There was no free water/coffee service (and the paid food items didn’t look very appetizing); this is a mostly free conference but with sponsors such as IBM, Deloitte, Cloudera and SAS, it seems like they could have had a couple of coffee urns set up for free under a sponsor’s name. The website started giving me an error message about out of date content every time I viewed it on my phone; at least I think it was about out of date content, since it was inexplicably only in French. The EventMobi conference app was very laggy, and was missing huge swaths of functionality if you didn’t have a data connection (see above comments about no wifi or charging stations). I’ve been to a lot of conference, and the logistics can really make a big difference for the attendees and sponsors. In cases like this, where crappy logistics actually prevent attendees from going to sessions that feature vendor sponsor speakers (IBM, are you listening?), it’s inexcusable. Better to charge a small fee for everyone and actually have a workable conference.