BCBA Conference and Artificial Intelligence in Telecom

I’m currently at the British Columbia Broadband Association (BCBA) Conference, reconnecting with perspectives from the industry and the provincial perspective in BC. Of the Canadian events I’ve attended, this is definitely one of my favorites – the local context keeps it at a manageable size, affordable, but still with quality speakers. BC stands out as a province in Canada because of how non-incumbent ISPs have historically organized through the BCBA (for other industry conferences one generally has to travel to Toronto). BC is also remarkable in the attention that connectivity has received from the provincial government. The province is involved primarily through Network BC, which has in recent years focused more on supporting local solutions and supporting communities directly, rather than just partnering with the incumbent. While their materials/resources are intended for BC audience, communities around Canada interested in improving connectivity can find some ideas and inspiration in what Network BC has recently been involved in.

One of the new developments since I was a regular at these industry conferences is that we are now firmly in the midst of the artificial intelligence (AI) wave, where it is basically impossible to attend any policy or industry/technology conference without hearing at least one presentation about the promise of AI. At the BCBA, this presentation was provided by Jim Radzicki from TELUS International, who spoke on AI and the customer experience, including a broad overview of approaches and technologies under the AI “umbrella”.

Here the focus was really on how to better provide “customer care” – addressing customer questions, troubleshooting, and so forth. The application of AI in handling customer calls (including helping human agents handle calls) and acting as chatbots is a natural extension of these technologies, especially if we define AI with reference to the Turing Test (as Radzicki did), which connects the high-tech hype of AI with incredibly dumb chatbots of an earlier era like ELIZA. But AI is far more than just ‘fooling’ someone that they are talking to an intelligent being. As Radzicki also explained, what distinguishes these new technologies is their ability to organize and work with (or ‘learn’ from) vast data sets. And this is where AI already impacts our lives in a variety of ways, whether we know it or not – powering our Google searches, recommendations, or handling various functions behind the scenes. Elsewhere in the telecom industry, AI is touted as a solution for cybersecurity, network management, and traffic management, with companies offering products in these domains (beware however, if it says “AI” on the box, you may just be being sold some clever marketing and little else).

It’s great to be at a broadband conference again, and I will continue working on these topics and writing publications (particularly about community networks and public connectivity projects). Internet governance remains a fascinating domain, but this year I am also beginning a new long-term research project into AI governance: both how AI is governed, and how AI is used to deliver public services, or in the service of public policy. Governments at all levels in Canada are working to implement these technologies (machine learning, automation) with agencies such as TBS trying to guide developments across departments. I look forward to attending more AI-themed talks over the summer, getting a broad perspective of this fascinating set of social transformations, and seeing what stock images of humanoid robots the presenters have selected as illustrations.