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St. Albert businesses embrace AI technology

New tools can transform workplace but should be implemented with care, says expert
An AI-generated image of a robot working at a desk. Generated using OpenAi's DALL-E 2.

Love them, loathe them, or fear they’re out for world domination, generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools are here to stay, say experts and local businesses.
And they’ve already become staples at some St. Albert workplaces.
Zach Belland, owner of The Crow Creative, a St. Albert-based marketing agency, said in the 14 months since OpenAI introduced its text-generating chatbot, ChatGPT, his business has changed in some major ways.
Since starting the Crow in 2019, he has hired subcontractors to write content, design websites, create graphics and more. Now, instead of cutting subcontractors in favour of automation, Belland said he’s actually hiring more people than ever.
“But they're way more highly specialized,” he said. “When I first started Crow … there were a lot more generalists that could do a variety of things.”
In the age of AI, however, businesses must be lean, he said.
Because he has been able to save money by, for example, automating certain aspects of content creation, he can afford senior web designers and other specialists who charge a bit more.
Using AI, those specialists can also turn the work around faster. Projects that might have taken days now take hours.
“I'm super proud of the results,” he said.
However, it still takes human input and talent to get those results, he said.
“When these tools first came out, there was a big thing going across the marketing world, and maybe across other industries, about how it’s going to put people out of work,” he said.  “But we found the sweet spot where these tools are only as effective as the people using them.”
It has taken him plenty of research and trial and error to coax an interesting blog post or eloquent piece of web copy from ChatGPT, he said.
However, Belland was unsure whether using AI has helped him grow his business.
“It has definitely helped me become a lot more efficient,” he said. “I just don't know if I can trace AI directly to revenue growth.”
Shelly Nichol, executive director for the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber wants to support businesses as they navigate the ever-expanding selection of generative AI tools available online.

The chamber even scheduled an AI seminar for last October’s Business Excellence Week but had to cancel because too few entrepreneurs registered for the event — a problem Nichol attributed to a hectic business week rather than low interest.

Businesses may be confused about where to start with AI tools, Nichol said.
“The other issue is time,” she said. “Even though there's all these tools out there, you’ve still got to learn how to use them.”

Although she uses ChatGPT primarily as a personal assistant to help her write emails and search for information online, she’s also using various AI tools to help generate marketing ideas, photos, graphics — and potentially help create a podcast for the chamber.

She has encouraged all of the chamber staff to adopt the tools, and even recommended them to chambers in other cities.

“The only caveat that I have is, if you're using any AI at all, it is a tool,” she said. “You are the critical thinker behind the AI. You still need to check your facts … [it] doesn't take away that side of your responsibility.”

Not just generative AI

Although large language models and image generators such as ChatGPT and DALL-E may be at the centre of public consciousness today, similar technologies have been transforming workplaces for decades.

Sometimes the change happens quietly.

Mike Howes, president of DKI-Sparklean Restorations, started using a technology called DocuSketch several years ago.

Using a camera mounted on a tripod, the software takes a 360-degree 3D scan of a room, and the image is sent to a remote team for analysis. Then, AI software scans the data for line items that may have been overlooked.

The technology has turned a daunting task that required the labour of trades professionals into one that can be turned around within 24 hours.

“I just hired a 26-year-old young lady that has never held a hammer in her hand before as one of my project managers,” he said.

However, Howes said the technology hasn’t displaced any of his staff. And he believes it has helped him avoid Alberta’s skilled labour crunch.

“It's really helping on how we hire people and the type of people," he said. "It opens [the field] up to a much broader range of people.”

Employers should consider workforce impacts, expert says

Dr. Jason Foster, an associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University, says employers looking to use AI should do so with careful consideration of how it will affect their workforce.

“Any time you disrupt the workplace, you're going to get turnover,” he said. “You're going to get people who are suddenly unhappy; you’re going to get some people who might be happier.”

He thinks many employers fear that if they don’t start using new technologies right away, they’re setting themselves up for failure.

“So they implement it, and they tend to implement it in a way that doesn't work, or in a way that suddenly they’ve [upset] all their workers, because they've done it in a reactive way,” he said.

New technologies that have the potential to replace workers often give rise to more specialist occupations, or downgrade occupations that were once prized, he said.

They also force employers and employees to compromise.

But these tensions are not inevitable, according to Foster.

“My advice to an employer who wants to do this in a mindful and fair way is to slow down and talk to your workers,” he said. “Talk to them about what aspects of this might make their lives better. What aspects of this would make their work better make them more satisfied, and ... finding ways of assuring them that their job isn't at risk.”

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