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Ben Reid

Seizing AI opportunities at Tech Summit

Last week, the Canterbury Tech Summit bought together hundreds of leaders in business, innovation and technology. Over 650 delegates filled the main hall at Wigram Airforce Museum to listen to the engaging panel discussion AI – Opportunities for New Zealand.

Xero’s senior data scientist Kathryn Hempstalk was joined by visiting European technology strategist Erich Prem and the AI Forum’s Ben Reid. The wide ranging discussion focussed on the pending wave of AI driven change and how New Zealand can best adapt and seize the opportunities.

Key points included the immediate opportunities for New Zealand to focus on transport, health and agriculture. Just one day prior, autonomous vehicle startup Ohmio, launched its new self driving electric shuttles in Christchurch.

Dr Prem introduced his definition of AI: “computers solving things that we previously thought were impossible”. His work in machine learning at various European institutions provided an international perspective on New Zealand’s current condition. In particular, the opportunities to be gained from combining AI and robotics. For example, intelligent fruit-picking robots which are starting to emerge.

Dr Hempstalk (“@DrKatNZ” to her Twitter followers) has had a diverse career since achieving her PhD in Computer Science from Waikato University. She has worked in agriculture, animal genomics, health and now fintech at Xero. She has observed that successful machine learning applications depend hugely on access to well-curated datasets. Often the effort and skills required to pre-process that data are missing from New Zealand’s workforce, she says.

When the audience was asked who was actively carrying out AI research and development, only a small number of hands were raised. When asked who has an AI application in production, only two hands were left up. Clearly New Zealand needs to substantially increase its investment in AI to build the skills necessary to compete.

Discussing the impact of AI and automation technologies on employment, panellists were generally positive that although some jobs would be replaced by automation, there is an expectation that new jobs will be created. The ‘boring stuff’ will go and the human side will grow. There may also be greater opportunities for leisure time, as Dr Kat put it, “machines can’t optimise for free time”.

The panel also identified that some of the most exciting opportunities arising from AI will be in revolutionising healthcare. However, this is contingent upon large and complete datasets being made available for analysis, which is often slowed by concerns around patient privacy and data security. The conversation concluded with a clear call to action for the health sector to work in partnership to resolve these issues and provide a strong data foundation to support future research efforts using AI.


Photo L to R: Ben Reid, Kathryn Hempstalk and Erich Prem

Credit: Canterbury Tech


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Ben Reid I head up the AI Forum of New Zealand - working to harness the power of AI to help bring about a prosperous and inclusive future for New Zealand and the world. The AI Forum NZ brings together technology firms, businesses, universities and the government to connect, promote and advance the national AI ecosystem.