After participating in the Digital Festival Zurich for the first time last year, the whole Swiss team of STATWORX was looking forward to this year’s edition, which took place from September 23 to 26 in Zurich at Schiffbau, located conveniently just around the corner of our Swiss office. Under the motto «Make It Personal», a variety of keynotes, labs, and networking sessions brought together digital leaders, digital aficionados, and innovators, all driven by curiosity, openness, and a maker mentality. In keeping with this year’s Digital Festival motto, I would like to share my personal five highlights of this recent event with you now.
5 Highlights from the Digital Festival Zurich 2021
1. AI Experience: Learn. Interact. Apply
This year, we not only participated in the Digital Festival as guests but also had the chance to host a lab session on Friday afternoon. In our AI Experience lab, we first held a short introduction on what is behind the buzzword AI and offered the opportunity to interact and play around with various AI applications, such as a GPT-3-based data science chatbot or the Teachable Machine by Google.
After presenting different use cases of the introduced AI technologies, the participants could work out further use cases related to their respective business fields. Since we got the chance to host a lab session quite spontaneously, we were even more excited that it was booked out immediately. The participating group was very heterogeneous – business people from different industries, researchers, and also some students – which led to a lot of interesting conversations and discussions. It was such a pleasure to see how interested and engaged the participants were.
In the final Q&A session, they were particularly keen to know what AI will look like in the future and what impact it will have on society. This showed me once again how important it is not only to focus on AI in business but also to address and push topics in the field of AI and society.
2. Blind Spot – The Game for Your Next Team Event
Aside from our own lab session, I attended one other lab session, and it was a hit. In this lab, we had the chance to play Blind Spot, a cooperative board game researched and developed by Sabrina Schenardi and Matthias Koller, supported by game developer Robert Stoop as part of an MBA thesis.
In teams, we were responsible for managing a fictitious company with all the usual departments such as HR, Finances, or IT. With speed, strategy, and collaboration matter we had to handle various challenges and resolve conflicting goals. It took some time for our team to first get used to the idea of playing together instead of against each other. It was also very interesting to see that each of us had a different idea of what winning meant in this game: while some of us were keen to have as much money as possible in the account, others, for example, wanted to avoid at all costs getting into a blind spot (a situation in which you have an enormous amount of tasks to solve). And then there were also those who simply wanted to finish the game faster than the other teams.
In the final discussion, after all the teams had finished the game, we realized that none of us was more right or wrong than the others. Just like in the real business world, there are many different strategies and actions to successfully run a business.
3. Festival Atmosphere Everywhere
What I really like about the Digital Festival, compared to other business and networking conferences, is the exceptional venue and the casual atmosphere of this event. Starting with check-in, the badges and festival wristbands reminded me more of my visit to the Gurten Festival a few years ago than my last visit to a business conference, except that this check-in was much faster than any music festival I have ever attended. Entirely justifying the name Digital Festival, this festival feeling ran through the entire event.
The foyer was filled with various food trucks, experiential booths, and sitting areas for chatting. The whole main venue was set up very openly and flexibly, so you could easily switch between keynote speeches, networking, and catering without disturbing anyone. In general, the venue was perfectly in tune with the topic of digitization. Originally used for building ships, the Schiffbau is located in the heart of Zurich’s tech quarter just next to the famous Technopark. The industrial style of the building combined with the modern, avant-garde decoration provided the perfect environment for innovation, ideas, and discussions on topics of our digital future.
4. What a Culinary Experience!
The cherry on top of this whole event was definitely the catering. After checking in, we were greeted with croissants, fresh juices, and smoothies, and – best of all for a frahling lover like me – a barista truck with freshly roasted coffee. For lunch, the lobby was filled with food trucks offering everything your heart desires: curries, pasta, work, sushi, burgers, and more – everything super fresh and delicious. Best of all, since the portions were more tapas-sized, you could try everything without creating any food waste. They also had many vegetarian and vegan options, so there was indeed something for everyone. My personal favorite: the vegetarian gnocchi with cream, spinach, and walnuts. For dessert, we could treat ourselves to some sweet local ice cream. After the afternoon lab sessions, we were offered a delicious aperitif riche with delicacies such as mussels, white wine risotto, and cocktail meatballs. Together with the local beer and wine, this was the perfect culinary ending to this event.
5. Keynote: AI for Decision-Making?
The best for the last, my personal favorite highlight this year was the keynote speech by Elliott Ash on Building a Robot Judge – What Role for Artificial Intelligence in Judicial Decision-Making. Using the idea of building a robot judge, Elliott Ash addressed the question of when AI should be used to support human decision-making. To answer this question, he presented three categories of decision-making processes and the associated opportunities and risks of using AI in each. Overall, the probably most prominent risks in integrating AI into decision-making processes are bias and discrimination. As bias in AI is a very complex issue, there are no perfect solutions to this problem yet. However, there are ways AI can be used to detect biases in systems and even in people.
In the context of developing fair algorithms, Eliott Ash raised another very interesting and important question: What reference point do we use to measure the fairness and transparency of AI systems? In all the discussions about AI fairness, we tend to forget that we humans ourselves are very biased and inconsistent. Indeed, AI systems are biased only because they are trained with human data and developed and evaluated by us. He also pointed out that bias in AI often occurs when a sensitive characteristic such as skin color is used as a proxy for another missing characteristic. Without going into detail here, this has once again shown me the importance of pushing the field of causal machine learning to develop AI systems with causal reasoning, as these systems would automatically solve the proxy problem and are more robust overall than current AI solutions.
In closing, I would to thank Elliott Ash for this great keynote, which combined all my personal interests around AI – bias, ethics, humans, and causality – and gave me many new ideas and thoughts on these topics.
After our participation last year, we had high expectations for this year’s Digital Festival, and we were not disappointed. If possible, this year’s edition was even better. In addition to my five highlights above, I really appreciated all the interesting people I met – old friends and new acquaintances – and the inspiring discussions with them. I was also very happy to spend a whole day with my Swiss team colleagues because due to the Corona pandemic, this has not been possible for a long time.
In closing, I would like to thank all the organizers of the Digital Festival for making this event happen and all the participants for their ideas, inputs and good energy. We are already looking forward to the Digital Festival 2022!