On the 21st of February, the Solvay Digital Society and the Student Entrepreneurs Club – two students clubs from the SBS-EM – have joined their forces to organise a conference on Artificial Intelligence.  AI is indeed a burning subject in the business world as well as in the academic world, and the massive attendance to the conference confirms the current interest for Artificial Intelligence and for technological innovation in general. The event was followed by a drink to which the 240 people of the audience were invited to attend and where they had the opportunity to get in touch with the panel of speakers and discuss the subject in a somewhat informal way.

The three invited speakers were experts in their field, and they were cleverly chosen to provide diverse views on the matter from their different approaches, whilst still being sufficiently alike for the conference to remain homogenous and fluid. The first speaker was Geert Goethals, CIO of Proximus, the largest Belgian telecommunications company. He was followed by the successful entrepreneur Frédéric Pivetta, co-founder of Dalberg Data Insights, a company that provides tools to governments to interpret private data and, from them, uncover solutions to social issues. He also co-founded Real Impact Analytics (a B2B company) and Accountable (a B2C company), offering services also based on data processing. The last speaker was Julie Scherpenseel, a young Alumni from Solvay who is working as an Analytics Consultant at Accenture.

Geert Goethals – the implementation of AI solutions in established companies:
Mr. Goethals started by introducing the subject, reviewing the broad range of reactions that it triggers, from highly pessimistic to highly optimistic, taking the so-called debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg as an example. He also defined what Artificial Intelligence is: a system that perceives its environment and that is able to take decisions, and even action, based on it. The self-learning aspect of AI was also underlined. As part of the definition of AI, Mr. Goethals recalled that this is not something brand new, and that the development of intelligent systems has been going on for decades, with ups and downs. A particularly striking example of this counterintuitive fact was the Porsche 964 automatic gearbox, released in 1989, that relied on a complex computer system to adapt the transmission shift pattern to the driver’s driving style.
Then, the CIO of Proximus gave very concrete example of the use of AI in his company:
• the chatbot Titus, that spontaneously helps customers choosing the right product on the Proximus website, by asking them questions and offering information. The main challenge, when developing this chatbot, was to make sure that in its interactions with (potential) customers, its language would reflect the values of Proximus.
• self-healing networks, which are networks that are able to detect any dysfunction and fix it without human intervention. They are also design to cope with any failure and keep on operating, minimising the impact on the services.
• intelligent dispatch, that makes a data-driven choice of the relevant technician, with the relevant skills, to be sent to a particular problem.

Frédéric Pivetta – the market for AI and data solutions:
The second speaker started by briefly presenting the three data-related companies which he co-founded. He then highlighted the size and the characteristics of the market for data, especially for policy-making. According to him, there is huge market, worth €3 billion worldwide, for data in policy-making. He argued that three fundamental characteristics have been changing over the last years:
– the volume of data,
– the type of data, and
– the kind of interactions (from machine-to-machine to brain-to-machine and even brain-to-brain).
Mr. Pivetta finished his presentation by giving pieces of advice to the audience to become an entrepreneur in the AI and data sector.

Julie Scherpenseel – the potential of AI for firms:
Mrs. Sherpenseel was the last speaker to take the floor. She was quite obviously on the optimistic side of the debate, as she started by welcoming the audience to the “Age of Intelligence”. She claimed that many of the latest innovations on the market had to do with artificial intelligence, and gave the well-known examples of the various intelligent personal assistants, and of the self-driving cars. Just like Geert Goethals, she also defined AI as being a collection of advanced technologies that allows machines to sense, comprehend, act and learn.
However, the core of her presentation was about the possible ways of increasing the profitability of existing companies with AI. By “existing companies”, she meant to exclude the tech start-ups and the new firms currently created, to focus on what she called the dinosaurs, that is, large companies that have been on the market for a long time. Mrs. Sherpenseel gave three dimensions along which AI could improve the profitability of these dinosaurs:
• by improving the use of human resources: by automatizing most of the routine work, the employees could focus on other activities which are more productive;
• by improving the processes: artificial intelligence can help analysing and optimising companies’ processes, which would translate into gains of time and efficiency;
• by improving the use of data: artificial intelligence is a very powerful tool when it comes to finding new use for data and using data more efficiently.

As a brief conclusion, this conference was an excellent blend of the two organising clubs’ objectives, which are respectively to educate students to the digital economy and to foster entrepreneurship among students. Given the quality of the three speakers and the large attendance, we hope to see further collaborations between students clubs of the Solvay Brussels School.


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