Podcast with Dr. Wanda Curlee, Program Director, School of Business and
Dr. Tracy Fisher, Faculty Member, School of Business
Many people are intimidated by artificial intelligence and don’t make the effort to better understand this advanced technology. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to business professor Dr. Tracy Fisher about how many small business owners are missing an opportunity to leverage AI technology by reducing the human toil involved with operating the business. Also learn why it’s so important for employees at all levels to embrace AI, learn how it works, how it can be beneficial, and how AI can contribute to their career path.
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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast, I’m your host Wanda Curlee. Today we are going to be chatting about how to start a career in artificial intelligence, which I think is very exciting. My guest is Dr. Tracy Fisher, who is a part-time professor in the business administration program at American Public University.
But first, let me give you a little bit of background about Dr. Fisher. She is a veteran of the telecom industry. She was in the industry when Internet of Things first appeared on the market. Think about smart refrigerators, smart thermostats, smart phones. Unfortunately, she was in the industry during the dot-com crash. So was I. Dr. Fisher worked for two companies that did not make it to the other side of the crash. However, the network, which was deployed during the boom, is still in service. The transport layer is still in use. The boxes on the ends have been upgraded multiple times. Tracy, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Thank you, Wanda.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Tracy, can you please go into more detail about AI and the telecom industry?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: AI is used in the telecom industry for a lot of different things. The part that I worked in was in network optimization. And this is where the network is constantly learning the shortest route from end user to end user. The shortest route is not measured as far as physical route miles, but it route speed. Which part of the network do I need to send this data to get it to the end user as fast as possible? Now, some of the technologies that, are used, is called the minimum spanning tree, or what we like to say is the famous stick bear in the closet method of machine learning.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Ah, interesting. So you’re telling me that maybe when it’s sending something and then part of the network goes down, it automatically learns to resend it some place else.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes. It’s constantly learning the fastest route so if there’s congestion in the network, or there is a repair issue, the network will heal itself and send the data a different route.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. Interesting. I had no idea. So your background sounds quite exciting and I can see how you can help those interested in AI and want to have a career in that field. Please help our listeners understand your definition of AI and where it is used in business.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Well, my definition of AI is very broad, coming from a business perspective. My definition is a machine that can adapt to its environment, make decisions, problem-solve based on data input, and act on the decisions. The machine will continuously learn from the outcome of the decisions and continue to process.
So, as an example, in my world, the simple Roomba vacuum cleaner has elements of AI. The machine learns the mapping of the house, can navigate around unexpected obstacles, and adapt to change. However, it works best with some human intervention.
For example, before you set the Roomba to work, you would go around and pick up any items laying on the floor. So, in other words, you would clear the data input for the machine.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s quite interesting because I have a Roomba and I always wondered about how it was learning like that.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes. It uses different input data depending on which brand of Roomba or vacuum that you have. It could use laser sights, it could use basic interruptions in its pathway to change its movement. So there’s a couple of different ways the machine learns the mapping of the house.
So, basically, I think the Roomba, or any other artificial intelligence, must have human interface as a partnership. AI, within itself, without a human intervention or a human cooperation is just data. It takes the human aspect to create capital within a business.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. Interesting, because I’ve always said that AI is a value-add to humans because people think that their jobs will be taken over, and some will, but it’s still a value-add to humans, not a replacement for most jobs unless you have a repetitive-type thing. So, what do you think about the AI that was in “2001: A Space Odyssey?”
Dr. Tracy Fisher: I do like the science fiction aspects of it. It makes for a good movie—how AI will eventually take over the human race, but I do not agree with that. I don’t think in our lifetime it will happen, but one of my favorite sayings from Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote “2001: Space Odyssey.” Clarke stated “That any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In other words, to some people, AI may look like magic.
And if you go back to the Roomba example, when you go to bed at night and run your Roomba, wake up in the morning, come down and your floors are clean. If you didn’t understand how that worked, it would just look like magic.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right, absolutely. So, let’s go back to the business applications. Where do you see the business applications for AI?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Business applications of AI are endless. There’s all kinds of possibilities and I can’t think of an industry that is not utilizing AI. I can see how some small businesses are not leveraging the utilization of AI.
And many small business owners are working long hours to begin with, creating value based on what we call human toil: working, working, working. Good old-fashioned elbow grease.
The learning curve and expense for some small business owners is just too daunting of a task when they are daily having to consider, in their own minds, all the things they need to do. Therefore, I think small businesses are missing or postponing an opportunity to leverage AI technology.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: I think maybe many small business owners may not understand what AI can do for them, or may not understand how it helps them progress, or they might be scared of it or they may not be able to afford it. Do you think those might be some of the things that are going on in the small business owner’s mind?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes, and that goes back to the historical data we have on individuals reluctant to accept the internet back 20, 30 years ago, especially people in rural areas had the same thought process of the internet. They just didn’t see the need for it. They felt like it would be too expensive.
Also what we’re seeing in small businesses currently accepting or up-taking the technology of AI, they don’t understand exactly what it can do for them, how it can relieve some of the human toil.
An example would be, let’s take a bakery, a small bakery. Their flour, right, is the main ingredient in their shop. Flour has a shelf life, but if you buy in bulk you obviously get a discount. So, AI can track inventory, track expiration dates, tell you how much flour you use daily, how much you can purchase in advance at a discount for bulk and still maintain your inventory within that expiration date.
Whereas now, small businesses are buying flour, and this is an example, are buying flour as needed. When they see there’s only two bags left on the shelf, they’ll order a couple more bags. Whereas if they use AI to completely track expiration dates, usage, sales, and consolidate all of this data into an inventory management system, they could leverage buying in bulk.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, I can see where that would be useful for many industries as well, not just a bakery in small business. And I think, as you were saying, it just depends on how creative you are. Yeah, that’s great. I would hope that more small businesses reach out and use AI and make themselves more smart about AI. So, in your opinion, is AI used in most industries and can you elaborate what these industries are?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: I would say that AI is used in all industries. I cannot think of an industry where it wouldn’t be beneficial. If you drill down again, AI may not be used by all businesses within an industry. Take, for example, the tourism industry. The major tourism companies are probably using AI, but the smaller mom and pop organizations are probably not implementing AI.
I can say that with the recent COVID vaccine, AI was instrumental in this rapid development of COVID-19 vaccine. AI was able to build the molecular models that predict behavior. So the machine learning in the pharmaceutical industry can take years or even decades off the development of a new drug or vaccine. So the AI component of the COVID-19 was very instrumental in how fast this vaccination was developed.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, it’s amazing to me because I’ve been following Moderna and they use AI, but their AI is proprietary so they’re not willing to say anything. But you’re right, in the pharmaceutical industry it can bring down the amount of time it takes to either kill something that they’re looking at, or bring it back and do it more successfully. And that’s got to save them a lot of money as well.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes, a lot of money and a lot of lives saved also.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. So, I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to the vaccine so we can get back to normal. So, some of the areas where AI seems to be used, or in data analytics, user experience, natural language processing, research in machine learning. Some may think you must be a programmer or an IT professional to work in AI. Is this true?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: No, not at all. You can be a transport specialist and use AI. An example of that, if we go back to the industries, the transportation industry uses AI to optimize the use of fuel efficiency and time. An example is UPS has been doing this for years. They have a mapping system and all the addresses that need to be delivered that day are input into this mapping system where all drivers will only make right-hand turns. They avoid all left-hand turns as much as possible just for time efficiency, having to wait for either a red light to turn, or the traffic to clear so that they can take a left-hand turn.
So there’s a lot of industries that you don’t have to be a data scientist or an IT engineer in order to benefit from the AI in an industry. Another example is musicians use AI. AI learns the basic characteristics of what is considered music and will mimic a certain genre. So we all know that country music has a different genre as pop. AI learns the rhythms of the lyrics based on the analysis of the language and can compose the corresponding music based on the characteristics of the genre.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That’s amazing. I had never thought about musicians, but that makes a lot of sense. So do you see it being used in other fields like cybersecurity or in the military?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Some of our students are in the armed forces in the cybersecurity career field, which is a growing field, analyzing the machine output from satellite data, reconnaissance missions, drone footage and so forth.
There are all these pathways of data going into the machine for output and, ultimately, humans will make the decision. An example of that would be satellite photos. As satellites continuously map or take photos of certain locations, you have the data analyst looking at the before, like a maybe a satellite image two weeks ago, and compare it to a satellite image of today.
Now, AI will point out the differences. But it still takes a human to discern the information. Is this something we should be concerned about or not?
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Very interesting. So it, it sounds like with AI, if you’re thinking of a career path in that area, you can go on two different paths. One is to create the AI, and one is use the output of AI. Can you go into that a little bit more?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes. This is similar to being a theorist or a practitioner. Careers that create AI would be the data scientists, the IT engineers, the coders, the ones who write the programming code.
But there are more career opportunities that utilize AI. Healthcare, government, banking, transportation, education, website analytics, finance, telecom. As far as I can predict, all industries will have some form of AI.
One example of that is the stock markets if you’re in the finance. Stock markets are run by machines. Very little of any buying and selling is completed by humans on the actual markets. If you go to websites like Ameritrade, you’re actually interfacing with AI. If you move into a career in finance and investing, most analysts are basing their buy and sell decisions on forecasts from AI.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That’s amazing. To me, to have AI do that stock market predictions. Some would think it would take all the risk out of the stock market, but I’m not sure that’s completely true.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: I don’t think it can eliminate all the risk. There are always variables that are not able to be forecasted or foreseen, as with any investment. But it will take all the data from historical trends and, and across industries.
One of the tasks investors had to do in the past was physically read the very dry and mundane annual reports and also the correlating footnotes, which can be very tedious and very small. Important data can be overlooked in the footnotes.
A digital version of the annual report can be uploaded into AI program, along with dozens of other annual reports from companies in the same industry and within seconds comparisons are created and financial analysts have much more data than previously available.
Can you imagine how long it would take someone to read and create an analysis of the top 10 automotive companies in the world? AI can do this in seconds. They look at their annual reports and compare all 10 of them and determine which company is a better investment.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That is amazing. I’ve been a project manager for many years and I see the inroads of AI in that profession. Do you see it moving into all areas of business?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes. Let’s start with the project management. AI has definitely moved into project management. One of the skills, or tasks that a project manager completes or must maintain is the project coming in within the budget.
What’s fascinating is AI can monitor thousands of supply chain websites and find the best price. Or monitor the entire internet for discounts or sales prices of items that are needed to complete the project.
And I’ll give you an example. Many, many years ago, I was a project manager to complete a redesign of our large warehouse in the military. I spent days, and days, and days calling suppliers, waiting for callbacks for a specific type of the heavy-duty shelving: comparing prices, comparing inventory levels, and delivery schedules. AI can do this menial task and free up the project manager to deal with more complex challenges and spend more time interfacing with customers.
So these applications are also available to consumers. If there’s a product that you want to purchase, you can go to websites like ShopSavvy or ShopAdvisor. You can input what it is you’re looking for, what your price range is and so forth. And this AI within the website, will continuously track hundreds or thousands of other websites to find the best price or the best deal for you.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, I’ve actually used ShopSavvy and ShopAdvisor and it’s amazing what it brings back. I also worry about what it’s telling the people that coded it or own it, as to what they’re doing. So, I kind of am hesitant to use it at times because I don’t want to give away all my personal information. And that’s something I think we need to worry about on AI.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: That is true. AI is tracking all of your information between Google and Facebook, and all the other websites. Some people are leery of this, but actually your phone is listening to you. Now, there’s a ways you can go in to change that, but I won’t go into that here, but you can change your settings. Once you agree to their terms, if you want to use their website, they’re going to use your personal data across all aspects of the web.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So, at some point, I see employees having AI do the mundane tasks, as you have mentioned, especially in project management. So it could be analyzing the data, providing recommendations, scheduling conferences, finding individuals that you may need to talk to on an expedited basis, and I hope even developing graphs of presentations, or white papers in the future, but I don’t think we’re quite there.
This might be with an Alexa, Siri, or Google, incorporated into a laptop or sitting on their desk. What are your thoughts on why it is critical for all employees to have an understanding, or a working knowledge of AI?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes, it is true. AI will continue to take away what some call human toil, or mundane tasks. AI can do things like transcribe faster than humans, so in the courtrooms now, well, it still may be recorded, it will be uploaded to AI and the accuracy of these court proceedings is a lot faster and the accuracy is a lot higher. So, court reporting is one of the areas that uses AI.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: I had no idea that they used it in court. That’s amazing. So, we’ve had cutting technology come through all the time. I remember when I was in college, and we won’t give my age away, but I had a manual typewriter and then came the electric typewriter, as you said. So why is it important to embrace AI and technology for careers?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Right. So, as you were saying, technology typically will replace the previous technology. And as an employee, you would want to understand the technology that is coming into the workforce. So as MS Word replaced the typewriter and you can look at Microsoft Excel also, or any of the other database or spreadsheet-type programs that replaced a lot of accounting clerks.
So, if you want to stay relevant in the job market, you need to maintain some knowledge of the up-and-coming technology.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: I totally agree. I think if we don’t understand the technology then we’re going to be left behind and we’re not a value-add.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Correct. You’re not a value added, yes.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Okay, so do you see understanding this and using AI for your job as AI careers, or is it just using the technology tools to get the job done? Or is it both?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: I believe it’s both.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So when you say it’s both, so we have AI in our careers, but it’s not necessarily an AI job, we just have to understand what AI is.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes. There will be careers in AI that are creating new applications and these are the data scientists, research and development careers that are moving the AI forward into continuously improving it.
However, the number of employees that are using the practical applications of AI far exceeds the number of data scientists. So, as an employee, it’s best to continuously maintain a working knowledge of AI. How AI is affecting your position? How that you, as an employee, can leverage your knowledge of AI to move your career forward?
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, excellent. I think I totally agree with you and I would be interested in hearing if you are of the same opinion: Will those business professionals that don’t understand AI or have a working knowledge of AI, they’ll be at a disadvantage? Do you agree?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes. They will be at a disadvantage and some may say they will be displaced workers.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Those are the ones that need to be scared, I guess. So, it behooves us to understand AI and any technology. I mean, even Internet of Things and how they interact with each other.
So will AI displace some careers? If yes, what should businesses do to help displaced workers? Because I’m of the opinion that companies should help displaced workers.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: I agree. Companies should help displaced workers. However, I think it’s more of a 50/50 partnership on displaced workers. What can businesses do and what can individuals do?
Individuals will be required to accept the change in their career field and be able to quickly retool their skills and career path. So if you can see that your career is being replaced by AI, how can you retool the skills that you have and create a new career path?
However, I also believe that businesses utilizing AI can now move the funds, say, for example, the payroll to pay for the accounting clerks. They can move the funds that are paid to assist in accounting or administrative functions to hire additional sales, marketing, or project managers. Hire more human interactive customer contact personnel. So they can move this money around.
An example of this, there is a likelihood that in the future, careers in human resources will be replaced with AI. Employees like compensation and benefits managers.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s kind of interesting that they would move around the funds. I would hope they would use some of those funds to retrain those workers if they could. But, as you said, it is a 50/50 shot. You have to put in as much as the company does.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Yes, and an example is the budget allowed for human resource employees. Those employees could be retooled to be employee or family counseling. Instead of being a benefits manager, perhaps you become an employee coach or a well-being coach.
You could be trained human resource counseling. For example, mental health is a major concern, especially in the world we’re currently living in. Companies will have the resources to offer mental-health coaches, or mental-health intervention coaches. And companies can refocus resources maybe on providing early childhood education for employees. You as an employee would need to retool yourself, but also businesses would have the opportunity to take the payroll funds from jobs that were displaced to create new jobs that help the employees.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Excellent. That, that’s a great thought. I hope businesses are listening. So what are some of the ways that employees can stay current with AI, especially as it relates to their job?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: This depends on where you are in the career ladder. If you are entry-level position, my recommendation would be to watch and learn from co-workers in the same area, but at a higher level of output. For example, if you’re hired as a project manager, you obviously want to advance to the senior project manager, so my advice is to utilize the knowledge of the senior project manager who is using AI to reduce their human toil and perhaps have better forecasting methods and apply these skills to your projects.
My advice is do not be intimidated by AI. Have the courage to show that you know you don’t know is the way to grow a career. In addition, I would recommend staying connected with the training department, if there is a training department. Training may be a subset or an additional duty by someone in HR. You can always ask if online courses or videos are available that might keep you current. Beginning an advanced degree program is always a plus.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes. Yes, it is. I also heard that Google is giving out some free certificates on certain technologies, so that might be a path to look at, as well.
Dr. Tracy Fisher: Oh, yes. That is a good idea. Now, if you’re in the position of a department head. Let’s say you have advanced your career to where you are the leader of a team, I would encourage you to keep your team informed of how AI is being used within the organization.
Try not to operate your team in a silo. Always look for opportunities for cross-functional collaboration, see how AI is being used in other departments, understand how your team’s use of AI fits into these other departments as an opportunity to grow capital within the company.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Excellent ideas. Tracy, thank you very much for joining me today and sharing this timely topic. Do you have any final words to share with our listeners?
Dr. Tracy Fisher: I just want to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today, Wanda, and I look forward to future endeavors with you.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Excellent. And thank you to our listeners for joining us today. Stay well.
About the Speakers
Dr. Wanda Curlee is a Program Director at American Public University. She has over 30 years of consulting and project management experience and has worked at several Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Curlee has a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix, a MBA in Technology Management from the University of Phoenix, and a M.A. and a B.A. in Spanish Studies from the University of Kentucky. She has published numerous articles and several books on project management.
Dr. Tracy Fisher is a faculty member in the School of Business at American Public University. She joined the Air Force in 1987. While in the Air Force she worked in logistics, finance and project management. After retiring from the Air Force, she started a career in telecommunications and earned her Master’s degree in Telecommunications from Oklahoma State University in 2005. Her career in telecommunications allowed her to hold positions in network design and optimization, regulatory, finance, engineering, training and vendor management. She completed her Doctorate in International Business and Global Sustainability from Argosy University in 2014.
She recently purchased a RV and plans to spend the next three years traveling the country speaking with small, rural business owners to identify common challenges they face and recommend technology tools to help their companies move forward.