Part 1: Artificial Intelligence and the Retail Industry

When you hear the words “artificial intelligence,” what pops into your mind? Maybe you think about Westworld or self-driving cars or robot soldiers, maybe chatbots or video game characters. But what exactly constitutes AI? Today we’re talking to Kunal Chopra, a business transformation and management consultant who specializes in optimizing delivery models. This is going to be a two-part series about AI, and this episode we will discuss what AI is, and what it isn’t.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda at SLD, and you’re listening to Think Retail. Today, we’re going to be talking about artificial intelligence.

If I say the words “artificial intelligence,” what pops into your mind? Maybe you think about Westworld or self-driving cars or robot soldiers, maybe chatbots, video game characters, but what exactly constitutes AI?

Today we’re talking to Kunal Chopra, a business transformation and management consultant who specializes in optimizing delivery models, and this is going to be part one of a two part series about AI. Today, he’s going to tell us what it is and what it isn’t. This will be a little bit more of a high-level talk about artificial intelligence and in part two we’re going to put it into context for retailers. So, Kunal, thank you for joining us today, pleased to have you here. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about what you do and how you became interested in artificial intelligence?

Kunal: Absolutely, thank you for having me as a guest. What do I do? I spent the last 15 years of my 20-year career focused on transforming how organizations operate, not just from the operating standpoint in finding cost reduction but really innovating service experience all the way through. You know, how do we engage our clients? What is that interaction model, how do they want to be served? And then looking backwards across technology process, our staff, do they have the right skills? Do we have the right technology? Do we have the right process? And how do I really build that experience to engage my clients? So, it’s been a lot of large-scale transformation and innovation work.

My interest in AI arose from a couple of places. One, obviously given the line of work that I’m in and what I do, finding new approaches and new technologies to really innovate how organizations engage their clients is important and of interest to me.

Two, I’m also partnered with Monish Gandhi, who was the founder and CEO of Gradient Ascent AI, which is an organization based in Toronto that actually helps non-technology companies understand AI and how to approach it and how to implement it into their organizations. So, Monish has been critical in educating me on the possibilities of AI, what it can and can’t do. And I think both are very important and there’s a lot of misperception around what it can do or what it is. And really just improving my understanding of what it does and how it can be used.

Melinda: That’s a great place to start off. What are some common misconceptions about artificial intelligence? What are the most common things that you run into?

Kunal: It’s interesting, Monish and I were presenting at a large banking conference in the U.S. last year and we ran workshops on emerging technology for about 200 attendees over a couple of sessions. And we asked the question to the attendees, “what do you believe AI is?” And we actually put up a slide of a robot from Terminator. And you know, the room chuckled and we honestly asked the question, is this AI? And you could tell some honestly believed it was and I don’t blame them. Before getting involved and getting educated, that was probably my belief as well.

One of the more common misperceptions around AI, I believe is that it’s evil and that we’re going to be dominated by a world of robots that control humanity. I think part of that belief is generated via the media. I know that people such as Elon Musk, who is obviously one of the more innovative people in the world do have a belief that that is a possibility. And I’m not saying that it’s not, but I don’t believe that’s what AI is.

Melinda: Right. I mean, obviously Hollywood has taken artificial intelligence and turned it into all kinds of things. So how far away are we from an autonomous robot that can go and act like a human? How far away are we from that?

Kunal: I don’t think we’re too far away from autonomous anything, whether it’s autonomous vehicles, whether it’s robots which can engage with humanity and understand emotion and replicate some of that, will they ever be human? Of course not. Are we anywhere close to a world where we’re cyber armies and whatnot, I don’t believe we are. But AI is going to play a critical role in everything we do, whether we see it or whether it’s behind the scenes, and that world is coming soon.

Melinda: Right. So can you give us a definition that describes what artificial intelligence is as it exists today?

Kunal: Good question. I would define it as “machines replicating some of the intelligence and cognitive abilities of humans,” and they’ll do this through data and through finding patterns in that data and then extrapolating intelligent insight and emotion from that.

Melinda: For someone who doesn’t understand that kind of language, can you give me an example of what that means in action? What would that look like?

Kunal: Sure. So, places where we see AI having played a role to date that most people aren’t really aware of are cyber defense systems. Let’s talk about that, corporations use these to prevent themselves from being hacked. These are largely based off machines analyzing data in real-time, identifying whether a transaction or something hitting at their firewalls is actually valid or is a threat. So, this is a pretty critical example. It’s all about data, it’s about taking what’s happening in real-time, analyzing it against a very strong database of previous history and transactions and then understanding and making cognitive judgment on “is this valid or is it a threat?” So that I think that is a fairly clear example.

Melinda: Yeah, that’s great. And how do you see this changing and growing in the future–the abilities of AI. Let’s talk about it maybe in the immediate future and then if you want to go beyond that.

Kunal: I think in the immediate future, it’s going to change rapidly. Monish and I talk about this quite a bit and his view on it being so deep into it is that this is exponential growth and we see it everywhere. Organizations are trying to figure out what it is, how they implement it, whether they’re large, whether they’re small organizations, they’re thinking about it and they need to do something with it.

So, the role of AI and the use cases are growing exponentially and will continue to do so. We’re very much in the exploratory phase of this and I think the pace at which it’s changing is remarkable. There’s a lot of runway ahead of us in terms of what we learned and how we apply AI. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface at this point.

Melinda: We talked a little bit about some of the fears that people have about artificial intelligence being evil. Are there other concerns besides the sort of the Hollywood image of The Terminator?

Kunal: Yes, I think a lot of the concerns that people have are normal human-related concerns about change. There’s fears of automation and what it will mean to people’s livelihoods and jobs. We’ve heard about basic income programs that will have to be generated by governments to replace jobs lost by AI and whatnot.

So, I think that one of the greatest concerns is really just a natural human tendency to be nervous about change. And as somebody who spent their career– over three-quarters of it now as a change agent within organizations–I completely understand the sentiment that change isn’t easy and the pace at which the world is changing now in technology and AI are changing is remarkable.

You know, over the past 15 years I’ve seen things go from basic process change in Lean Six Sigma-type stuff to the emergence of digital, to the emergence of things like robotic process automation. And I will tell you the pace of change has never been as fast as it is now. So, I completely understand why there’s hesitation and why there’s concern.

This is why entire disciplines and career paths around change management exist, it’s because we as humans aren’t geared for change, we don’t like it. At least a majority of us don’t and you know, it’s going to require effort. It’s not to say that the Hollywood image of AI is not practical, there are some practical concerns and it will take time and it will take effort for us to get over them. And I think as we learn about what AI is and isn’t, as we see it implemented in broader capacities, we will have to adjust our level of knowledge, our career paths, our skillsets to make sure that we can continue to be productive in that world.

Melinda: You mentioned people being concerned about losing their jobs to automation. Is there also maybe a concern that governments are not going to keep pace because governments typically are really slow to move on this kind of thing? What’s your take on that?

Kunal: I think governments are generally very slow with the vast majority of things, some being more progressive than others. I do think there’s going to have to be–not just with AI and automation­­–but the world is changing on many fronts and whether it’s demographic changes or other changes, the way society functions is going to have to change going forward and technology is going to be one of the key drivers of that.

Melinda: I’d heard a statistic that self-driving trucks, for example, could cause up to half a million job loss in the United States and that alone is just a massive number of people who could suddenly find themselves out of work.

Kunal: Absolutely. And you know, truck driving is a key driver of the economy. I think Tesla reported their quarterly numbers last night and Elon Musk was out talking about how they’re going to have the ability to turn the Tesla cars once they get the autonomous vehicle model right into taxis. So, if you own a Tesla and it’s parked on your driveway cause you’re not using it, this thing could be out driving people around town and making you money. But then again, we’ve now pretty much automated the way the taxi industry as well and all those jobs, if that becomes a reality. So, it is going to change and jobs are going to be lost. The question will become how do we re-skill those individuals who are affected and how do we reintegrate them back into the workforce?

Melinda: I’m going to shift focus just a little so that we can kind of get ready for our next episode and talk about the context for retailers. If there was one key benefit that artificial intelligence could offer to retail brands right now, what would that one thing be?

Kunal: I would say a much deeper understanding of their clients. As we’ve seen AI emerge in consumer-facing interactions, it’s still early days on that front. But the data behind it, in terms of what organizations have about their clients, this is where AI can really get involved and really understand the data in a way that it would take humans months or years to do, given that it’s fundamentally about data and patterns and technology pulling in this data so that AI-driven engines behind the scenes can make sense of the data. Retailers really have an opportunity here to deploy AI to really get to know their clients, their individual preferences, their individual buying patterns at a far more intimate level and then do something with that.

Melinda: Kunal is right, we aren’t great at change and the speed of change right now as far as technology goes may just be too fast in some people’s opinions. That being said, it’s here and it’s happening and understanding the technology, at least at a basic level can help alleviate the anxiety but also, more importantly, help us to address concerns as they arise. This episode was really meant to give you a foundation for part two which we’re going to publish at the same time, and in part two we’re going to get into specific detail about AI in the retail environment, and I hope you’ll join us.


Kunal Chopra is a Financial Services Transformation Strategist for SLD. With a focus on business effectiveness, Kunal has optimized complete service delivery models from the sales force and channels, through product and service fulfillment.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email