Does Your Company Really Need AI? Stanford Executive Course Aims to...

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Does Your Company Really Need AI? Stanford Executive Course Aims to Demystify the Hype

By Sydney Johnson     Apr 17, 2019

Does Your Company Really Need AI? Stanford Executive Course Aims to Demystify the Hype

Artificial intelligence has become a ubiquitous buzzword for tech companies these days, but even though all kinds of founders and CEOs say their product is infused with AI, the meaning of the term varies from advanced machine learning to a smart spreadsheet.

At the same time, there’s growing public awareness around the risks of AI. In higher education, some worry that using student data to predict their outcomes, for example, could reinforce bias bases. And algorithms behind AI predictions are often proprietary, making it difficult for users to understand how data is being manipulated.

Stanford University has been a breeding ground for artificial intelligence innovation and research, as well as the starting point for many of today’s giants of AI, including Google. Now the university is launching a five-day executive education course to help business and government leaders understand the technology, including its applications and its limitations.

Executive education courses are typically offered through graduate business schools to provide non-credit training specifically to executives and managers. Stanford’s newest course takes an interdisciplinary approach, bringing in research and faculty from the university’s business, engineering, law and medical schools, as well as its School of Humanities and Sciences.

“AI without relevant business and organizational expertise is useless,” said Stanford business school professor Paul Oyer, who is the faculty director for the program. “On the other hand, a savvy organization can combine the skills and knowledge they already have with AI tools to build competitive advantage and to stay on the technical frontier.”

The AI course will be in-person and offered through a partnership between Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence Institute, an interdisciplinary hub on campus that launched in March to study AI and its impact on society.

“In the past couple of years, the tech industry has struggled through a dark time. Multiple companies violated the trust and privacy of their customers, communities and employees,” the institute's co-founders Fei-Fei Li and John Etchemendy wrote in a blog post. “Some applications of AI turned out to be biased against women and people of color. Still more led to other harmful unintended consequences.”

The new executive education program will include sessions on “training AI to understand humans,” which will focus on ways of gathering information digitally about people, through methods including facial recognition and text. And it will also include lessons on how that can go wrong.

“If used ethically, [AI] could revolutionize psychological assessment, marketing, recruitment, insurance, and many other industries,” the course description reads. “In the wrong hands, however, such methods pose significant privacy risks.”

Other parts of the course include lessons on automation, and on demographic changes in the workforce. It will also include sessions on business practices, such as how AI could help a company cut costs and increase efficiency.

At $13,000, the new AI course at Stanford is similar in price to the university's other executive education programs in technology and big data. (A course titled “Big Data, Strategic Decisions: Analysis to Action,” goes for $12,600.)

The AI course will be offered to senior-level executives, policymakers and nonprofit leaders “with little or no expertise in artificial intelligence,” according to the program website.

Executive education has struggled in the past to recruit and serve diverse groups of students. A 2016 study by Unicon, a consortium of university-based executive education programs, found that “many business schools are still attracting fewer women than men into their executive education activities.”

The executive education landscape faces other challenges as well. In 2001, BusinessWeek estimated the executive education market at $800 million. But today, fewer employers are funding executive education, the Unicon study says. And that these programs are increasingly competing against professional training firms or internal trainings at corporations.

According to the Unicon report, “business schools must either adapt or be relegated to finding revenue from the shrinking markets of more traditional, standardized learning for 1-5 day training and degree programs.”

The human-centered AI course is one way that Stanford Executive Education is working to adapt to that changing market. “AI is quickly becoming a critical tool in every industry,” Oyer said in a prepared statement. “Our program is broadening the horizons of successful leaders to get a vision for how AI can help take their organizations to the next level.”


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