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Alfredo C. Tan

Alfredo C. Tan

Chief Digital and Innovation Officer, WestJet

Alfredo C. Tan is WestJet’s Chief Digital and Innovation Officer. His experience as an executive with global tech and media giants, such as Facebook, Yahoo, Sympatico MSN, and Instagram, is helping the airline build on its culture of innovation and transforming the guest experience across all digital channels. He shares why now is the perfect time to be involved in advancing AI technologies.  


Mediaplanet: What are some factors shaping AI development globally?

Alfredo C. Tan: AI has been around for decades, but we’re seeing a dramatic increase in the science and public interest. This is being driven in part by increased computing horsepower and the relative decrease in its cost. The internet and the proliferation of mobile devices. is also creating huge amounts of data that we can leverage to improve how we live, do business and enjoy leisure pursuits.

Research at universities and AI institutes around the world is also driving advancements in the technology. With the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, and Google investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning consumers are for the first time able to see and experience AI first-hand. It’s not just something theoretical, but practical in their daily experiences. It is still the early days of AI. It is hard to predict where it is going to take us, it’s going to be big. And the only way to learn and drive impact is to experiment with the technology.

Why should Canadians be excited about the future of AI?

There’s a significant amount of investment happening in AI research and start-ups in Canada that is positioning us at the forefront of one of biggest mass transformative technologies that we have ever seen. With anything new, there is an element of fear and hesitation, but now is an exciting time to be around the technology. AI is not on the fringes anymore. The dedication from some of the country’s biggest industries to commit to advancing AI is inspiring. Government, business, and the academic community are all coming together to contribute.

What are some challenges hindering AI development in Canada?

The AI ecosystem in Canada is vibrant, but where there is still a lag in the adoption of AI by organizations. There are a lot of unknowns with AI, and the return on investment is long-term, so some companies are hesitant and there are always more important priorities concerning them today. It was the same when social media was getting ready to explode. Many organizations were hesitant to commit resources to it and made very little investments. But today it is hard to find any organization that does not have platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Snapchat integrated into their business in some capacity.

How can AI elevate the guest experience?

By finding solutions to challenges. At WestJet we’ve utilized AI to create a conversational chatbot, called Juliet, that’s revolutionizing how people interact with us. Our guests can communicate with us instantaneously, deflecting inquiries from our guest support teams, freeing up time for them to focus on more complex activities. Our imagination is the only thing that will limit us. We see new AI models helping to improve e-commerce solutions, create better pricing algorithms, and assist with flight scheduling.

What’s the importance of collaboration between industry, researchers, and start-ups in driving AI innovation?

As with most things that are successful, collaboration is key. But the collaboration must also extend inside organizations. Innovation can’t stay within the academic community — there should be a virtual loop, so we can improve service and develop commercially. The magic that happened in Silicon Valley did so because of a collaborative effort. It’s the same for AI. We can’t do this on our own. The world is getting increasingly complex and AI is a new concept for business. WestJet flies planes and creates amazing travel experiences for people; we are not AI experts, but we leverage our culture of innovation and partner with those who can help us become the best and most advanced version of WestJet.

How can organizations future-proof themselves and take advantage of these exponential technologies?

There are three things: foster a culture of learning, accept failure, and remove barriers to new ideas. You want to be bold without sacrificing the company. This was our goal at WestJet through our partnership with Canadian start-up Integrate.ai, where we aimed to personalize the online booking experience using predictive AI and cross-industry intelligence. It was important for us to get a better signal on what our guests needed and wanted. This experiment, with controlled budget, gave WestJet an opportunity to test the concept, and pivot quickly through learnings. In the end, many organizations are afraid to try something new because it may not work, and this paralyzes them into inaction. Failing is often categorized as a bad word in business. At WestJet, we “fail fast, learn fast.”

How can leaders ensure that they are visionary, innovative, and inclusive when leveraging AI technologies?

As with most things that are successful, collaboration is key. But the collaboration must also extend inside organizations not just external ones. Innovation can’t stay within the academic community — there should be a virtual loop, so we can improve service and develop commercially. The magic that happened in Silicon Valley did so because of a collaborative effort between academia, corporations and the venture & start-up community. It’s going to be the same for AI. We can’t do this on our own. The world is getting increasingly complex and AI is a new concept for business. WestJet flies planes and creates amazing travel experiences for people; we are not AI experts, but we leverage our culture of innovation and partner with those who can help us become the best and most advanced version of WestJet.

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