Panel Discussion I: Business and Academic Collaboration Model on AI Project
Following the keynote speakers a panel discussion was attended by Teerapan Luengnaruemitchai, Vice President, Office of Information Technology of Thai Beverage Plc., Orathai Sangpetch, Ph. D., Vice President of CMKL University and Carnegie Mellon Alumni (Computer Engineering), Woranan Woramontri, Senior Corporate Strategist, Office of the President, Betagro Group Thailand, and Hyong Kim, Ph. D., Director of CMKM, Drew D. Perkins Professor of ECE, Carnegie Mellon University, on the topic of “Business and Academic Collaboration Model on AI Project”, moderated by Michael Araneta, Associate Vice President of IDC Financial Insights Asia Pacific.
Mr. Michael, the moderator, launched the first panel discussion of the event by stressing the importance of the collaboration between the academic community and the business community. As an example, there has been an ongoing initiative of collaboration between Betagro, Thai Beverage, and Carnegie Mellon University on AI projects.
Q: Dr. Orathai, could you elaborate on the collaborative initiatives between the three parties?
“The collaborative initiative was launched in 2017, where Carnegie Mellon University, which was considered the birthplace of artificial intelligence, was brought on board onto the project. One premise is the common belief that Thailand has the potential to be the leader of AI by adding technology to the fundamental businesses in Thailand. A partnership was formed to launch the initiative of opening the CMKL University, a learning space for Thai lecturers, teams and students from different universities, to develop new technologies and leverage these technologies to bring businesses to the next level.” Orathai Sangpetch, Ph. D., Vice President of CMKL University and Carnegie Mellon Alumni (Computer Engineering) described the newly formed alliance and their collaborative initiative to launch the CMKL University.
Q: Dr. Kim, do you see increasing cases of collaboration between the business community and the academic community across the world?
“This is fairly new in Thailand, but we have been doing this for a very long time at Carnegie Mellon University. We are almost 60 years ahead, started in 1960. We have a place called the Software Engineering Institute, which came about because of Star Wars defense initiative, which happened a long time ago. We are working with a lot of partners from the Government to Industry partners, such as Intel, Microsoft, Google, Facebook. Although Thailand is a bit new to this even in the US not every university works with industries. Carnegie Mellon is special in that sense, because we take pride in working with industry partners to make differences.” Hyong Kim, Ph. D., Director of CMKM, Drew D. Perkins Professor of ECE, Carnegie Mellon University explained the long history of the collaborative efforts between Carnegie Mellon University and various partners in the industry.
Dr. Kim then revealed that one of the key contributions of Carnegie Mellon in working with industries is the ability to step in and start asking questions. “A lot of times, our partners, especially in the business sector, do not know what questions they should be asking. And this is typical and understandable because, if you work in a particular division of a company, that is what you are interested in, but then you lack this overall view of where you are going.” Dr. Kim explained how business partners work together by first starting with asking, “What is the problem you are facing?” Most of the time, you are not going to get the answer. The role of an academia is to start asking questions to raise new issues you never even thought of.
Q: In what seems to be a unique form of partnership and collaboration, what were the drivers that brought this about, Mr. Teerapan?
“For Thai Beverage, we aspire to be the Sustainable ASEAN Leader, with the keyword there being ‘sustainable’. So to be sustainable, we do not just drive towards the key performance of the business, but we have to look at the learning path as well in order to be able to build our own capabilities to survive on the long term. Working with the academic side allows us to do that.” Replied Mr. Teerapan Luengnaruemitchai, Vice President, Office of Information Technology of Thai Beverage Plc.
Q: And for Betagro, what is the intention of working with a university?
“I think we see an opportunity. Now working with universities is not an entirely new thing in Thailand as a matter of fact, but we work on the level of student exchange and apprenticeship. We build on the improvements of some well-known areas such as reliability, Six Sigma even. But when it comes to cutting-edge technology, we feel that we do not have a good example of research that can answer the needs of the industry, especially for the critical areas of do-or-die cases. I believe that this is a new case that we are getting into to provide the academic side a very important strategic area to work on and see how things can develop from there,” added Mr. Woranan Woramontri, Senior Corporate Strategist, Office of the President, Betagro Group Thailand.
Q: In the work so far, what sort of questions have been asked by the academia on the basis that this collaboration could open some questions that were never asked in your organization, starting with Dr. Orathai?
“When I worked with Carnegie Mellon, collaboration between industry and universities is fairly normal. We work in the same building with Intel, Apple, Google, and cross paths walking around. By working in the same building, it is fairly easy to talk and ask questions. This is not the case in Thai universities. Our collaborative initiative that we are starting here started with a goal that 5 years from now, businesses could become a leader for having a competitive edge. Looking at the goal, we can talk with the business partners, ask questions, talk to each other, be open, share opinions, and work towards that goal together. With limited resources and time, together, we can pick out a good problem that allow all of us to win and gain from the progress.” Replied Dr. Orathai.
Q: So do you envision this to be a long-term, let’s-figure-this-out-together initiative? But you’ve zeroed in on the theme or the objective of sustainability? Maybe that is your overarching business objective, what has been the setup discovery so far in this particular theme, Mr. Teerapan?
“We focus on two themes, supply chain and customer insights. Related to supply chain, for example, we might look at our data, explore and discover new insights that help optimize a certain thing in business. When the academia comes in, they might ask to look at our data, and we can gain from the fresh eyed views of the academic. So basically we let the team explore our data and try to discover new ways of how we can improve our efficiency.” Replied Mr. Teerapan.
Q: Is there some scare factor as well that you could get criticized or feel embarrassed that you did not know this?
“There are two paths, for example, when we do something in a traditional way, and we are trying to optimize a certain path, however, these two paths influence one another. For example, to optimize things in a traditional way, we will require a lot of data to achieve this optimization. In business, we do not have unlimited amount of time to achieve this optimization, therefore, with AI and machine learning, we might be able to achieve this more quickly. It might not be the best answer, but within a certain response time, we need to be able to get some guidance on how we should react in order to become more agile to the changes in demand and supply.” Came Mr.Teerapan’s reply.
Q: Mr. Woranan?
“I think a fresh pair of eyes with intelligence backed up by data can change the way you look at things. When academia comes in, before they even ask us questions, they would ask to look at the data. From the data, they look into the pattern, and then come back with questions that sometimes knock you off the ground, thinking, hey, we haven’t thought about that before. It is a challenge to the status quo that brings the first value to the industry. Even when we evolve, we carry it along with us.
Now on the second part of your question, whether there are any kinds of resistance within the organization, to be honest, I would say yes. For this, I think you need to prove that your goodwill intention is to help them rather than impede them, or point out the flaws that they have. So you need to make sure they understand that whatever the academia bring in to help is beneficial and valuable to the business.” Added Mr. Woranan.
Q: Is this particularly difficult for a Thai organization?
To that question, Mr. Woranan confirmed that yes, and it is quite typical for a Thai organization trying to guard something they value so much.
“It’s a dilemma, because while you are guarding it so hard, you are losing the chance to learn. Which is what Dr.Kim has been suggesting while working together that we need to find a quick way to prevent the organization losing momentum in order to get the buy-in. This is a little bit on the political side of the organization when it comes to AI, but this is very critical to make things work.”
Q: Dr.Kim, for this initiative you are obviously looking for the data, how do you go beyond the resistance of a company to share their data?
“I’ll talk about past experiences, so as not to touch on the current project. So this organization is a huge company prevalent in over 15 countries. Interestingly, the operational people do not trust their development people – so they do not share data even among themselves, but they came to us and have us look at the data. The reason they came to us is because they saw what we did with other companies. So the reluctance to share data is not specific to Thailand, this is common everywhere. Most companies do not feel comfortable sharing information, they might be afraid that someone would come in and say you are doing this the wrong way, or there is a better way to do this. So it takes a strong leader to step in and say, hey, I’m here to learn. I think that works pretty well.” Replied Dr. Kim. “Businesses are always looking at their daily operation, and it is hard for them to sit back and look at the whole operation. Essentially, you do not have the time and energy to do that, so if you bring in some people who would ask some stupid or good questions, come in with some fresh eyes and look at the problems you never thought you have – this is the big thing you can gain from collaborating with us.”
Q: In search for a quick win, you obviously have a certain methodology that you are able to ensure your business partners that this is going to be a good enough quick win to gain momentum for a certain project, is there a way that you can ensure a quick win in the first few months?
“There is no magic or free lunch that you could step in and say, okay, I’ll give you a quick win. We’ve been engaging our Thai partners for over a year now. It takes time, and sometimes over a good drink, so it takes time to build relationships and trusts between each other.” Came Dr.Kim’s response.
To which, Mr. Woranan added, “To put things in perspective, I think it is a matter of trust that industries need to point them into the pain point you are honestly having and sometimes, you need to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know, instead of being ignorant. Because these things could be critical, and this is where they can come in and help. Collaboration is more about sitting together and talk about it, learn about it together.”
Q: What would academia need from business?
Dr. Orathai was the first to respond to this question, “We need practical problems. We want to solve and work on something that matters. We want to make a difference. We want to feel proud that we have created something that is actually working, and that someone values it. In our collaboration, we learn from each other, coming from different background. Businesses have a lot to share, and working together, there is much we can learn from one another. Working together, we want businesses to become successful, because our partners’ success is also our own success.”
Q: I think that bring us to this concept of openness which is in line with OPEN-TEC initiative. This is the era of collaboration, of openness to third party and academia. But you might also need data coming from these companies, what are the terms of exchange of these data?
“We still need to work with the people inside the businesses to obtain the data, so there is a need for a lot of communication and exchange. We might even need to help them on how they can extract those data. So we need to work as a team, help each other out when anybody gets stuck.” Came Dr.Orathai’s reply.
Mr.Teerapan then added, “Similar to Dr. Orathai’s comments, if some data is sensitive, it is possible to do some encoding, converted product code. Eventually, if the academia wants to publish their work, then we enter a screening process to ensure what can be published and what cannot.”
Challenges and fun in working with Thai organizations?
Dr. Kim “I do not understand Thai language and culture. Challenges are not specifically for Thais but for every company. In fact, American companies tend to safeguard their data even more than other companies in Europe or Asia.” Fun is being in Thailand to learn a different context, and next year we expect results that would really benefit the business. This project has the possibility to succeed next year. Most of internet data go through systems developed at Carnegie Mellon, through my system. And CMKL will be just like that because they take our DNA.”
Dr. Orathai, are you looking for more business partnerships, and to what end goals?
Dr. Orathai “Theoretically, we are open to work with organizations in both the private and government sectors. We would love to use our knowledge and expertise to help businesses moving forward. And we would especially love to see Thai companies as leaders on the world stage, so we can do it together.
How do you ensure your entire organization will be able scale up from skills you learnt or discovered from academia input?
Mr. Woranun “it has to do a lot of internal communications and engagements from people who can adopt fast (the leader with proper support). Once we have some fruits in our hands, make sure that it would make a return to working teams in the organization by making a success story out of it.
Mr. Teerapan “We involved not only those employees we have sent to study, we have to prepare internal teams, in both business and IT fields to study on the same research, so that they can also be up to speed.
Ms. Orathai “Instead of doing research, we are trying build human capabilities as well. If we do not build people, there will be some gap at the end.”
What roles can government play to encourage collaboration in Thailand?
Ms. Orathai “CMKL university was established under a particular law (Article 44). For example, the curriculum doesn’t have to follow the rules as we originally comply. The next issue is about funding from government.
Mr. Teerapan “we have to look at our ecosystem. 1. To make things work, we need the local academic side to prepare resources from BA to Ph.D. On the business side, we need retain them through human resource development.”
What do we need for Thailand in terms of scale that we will succeed in AI?
Ms. Orathai “many organizations want someone that can work. So the questions for us is how we build qualified skillful people for the organization. Thus, we try to put our students to work while they study so that they don’t have to wait until they graduate.
Dr. Kim “Content always changes every year. Hence, it is not the content but the people. We focus on the people who are willing to take risk and accept failure. In Japan they are great but they are not tolerate the failure, however, in U.S., they looked at failures as experiences.”
Michael summarized the sessions. In respects of business and academic collaborations, we need to create the ability to ask a great questions, ability to work and comprehend right away with business context, allow flexibility and skills differentiations among people in team. These are the abilities that we need to ensure that everyone at CMKL gain for future success.