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Hundreds Hear About Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence and Data on the Cloud at the Florida Business Analytics Forum

By Keith Morelli

Florida Business Analytics Forum

TAMPA (May 15, 2018) -- From disturbing biases of machine learning and artificial intelligence to the wonders of blockchain technology, about 365 business executives in information systems professionals were schooled Tuesday on the latest trends at the Florida Business Analytics Forum. Most were there to see how all these emerging developments in technology can be utilized within their corporations and better serve their customers and clients.

It was the second consecutive year the forum – sponsored by the Muma College of Business Center for Analytics and Creativity – was held at the University of South Florida. It was moved from the Muma College of Business's atrium to the larger ballroom of the Marshall Student Center to accommodate the crowd.

Connecting with the local business community is a priority with the center, said its director, Balaji Padmanabhan, and the forum, "our flagship event," is one example of that growing and vibrant relationship.

"We have completed almost 100 hundred projects for more than 30 companies," he said, and representatives from many of those businesses were among the attendees.

The topics discussed included the emerging trends of business data analytics and touched on developments that will help commerce flourish, though there are some dark sides to be addressed as well.

For example, said Tina Eliassi-Rad, associate professor in the Network Science Institute of Northeastern University in Massachusetts, some disturbing human biases are finding their ways into machine-learning algorithms. They are unintentional but must be guarded against to ensure level playing fields. As an example, she said, Google voice recognition technology responds better to male voices simply because most of the programmers are male. There also have been some issues with facial recognition technology that show racist and gender biases, she said.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence may be the wave of the tech future, she said, but beware.

"You could one day have algorithms decide if your child should be yanked out of your house," she warned. "You really need to have the human element in there."

Similarly, algorithms are already determining criminal sentences and some face-recognition technology is being used to hunt terrorists. That could be an issue, if those systems identify someone who is not a terrorist, she said.

"You could find yourself in Gitmo," she said, "Just because somebody's software says you are a terrorist."

Other guest speakers included tech leaders and executives from Google and WalMart and a renowned health-care analytics researcher from Duke University. The forum also included a panel discussion featuring local analytics experts and educators, including one from Walt Disney World.

Valliappa Lakshmanan, tech leader of Big Data and Machine Learning Professional Services at Google in California, said he was currently involved with Google Cloud integration and talked about benefits and drawbacks for companies looking to incorporate machine learning technology into their information systems.

"Machine learning," he said, "is a way to use standard algorithms to create predictive insights and make predictions repeatedly."

Google, he said has positioned itself to harvest vast amounts of data, all of it useful in one way or another.

"It's not who has the best algorithms who wins," he said, quoting machine learning expert Andrew Ng. "It's who has the most data."

Frank Yiannas is vice president of food safety at Walmart in Arkansas. The USF alumnus, who pioneered the use of blockchain technology at Walmart to detect food-safety issues in near real-time, oversees probably the best blockchain use in retail today. He talked about how this new technology enhances distributors and retailers of food, and mentioned the recent E coli contamination of Romaine lettuce.

It's been a month since the tainted lettuce hit the marketplace sickening more than 100 and killing one individual, he said, and yet the lettuce's origin seems to be a mystery. With blockchain, the origin could be determined in seconds. The new technology keeps a meticulous record of supply-chain movement of goods and is accessible to everyone who participates in that movement.

In 1980, grocery stores typically offered about 15,000 different items. Now, that number is about 50,000. In the future, the number will be infinite, as people will be able to order what they want whenever and wherever they want. Blockchain systems will become the technology that moves that market, he said.

"I was one of the biggest skeptics of blockchain," he said, "and now, two years into it, I'm a blockchain believer."

Erich Huang, assistant dean of biomedical informatics at Duke University in North Carolina is an expert in both machine learning and healthcare and he talked about big data and healthcare analytics and what the future holds for machine learning in medicine.

He said analytics in healthcare is moving toward a time when healthcare workers, with a trove of data on patients, will be able to predict, within a certain degree of certainty, when a patient will need medical care, even emergency medical care.

Caregivers one day will go out and visit these types of patients, help with costs of preventative medicine and conduct occasional checkups, all because of predictive analytics that is being developed today, he said.

Machine learning can solve all kinds of health-care problems, he said, but it must also be monitored.

"Machine learning is great, but we also have to make sure we look inside that box," he said. "We have to remember it's a tool, like a scalpel. We must be careful how we apply it."

Attendees came from all walks of professions.

Karen Scangarello, a project manager with ConnectWise and a USF business school graduate, said she came to learn about the emerging trends in the world of technology.

"I signed up for this way back in the beginning," she said. "I'm interested in data mining, artificial intelligence. I want to stay on the cutting edge of this industry. I don't know much about blockchain and artificial intelligence is very interesting. It's in line with what I learned in a conference I attended a week or so ago."

Padmanabhan did make a request of the audience.

"We ask one important thing of each and every one of you," he said, "that you will walk out of here today not just with a head full of ideas, but with an action plan for what each one of you will do tomorrow at work to try to turn some of what you heard today into actions that can drive value for your businesses."

To view photos of the event, click here.
To view slides of the presentations click here.