How to improve the AI panel at your event

I’ve now seen AI panels at two events. They were disappointing and meandering; I didn’t learn much.

It’s pretty clear why this happens. The event organizer figures out (or gets told) that there has to be an AI panel, because AI is hot right now, but they don’t know much about it. So they create a panel from some combination of a manager who uses AI, a professional who uses AI, and an AI vendor somebody is friends with.

The results are incoherent, incomplete, inconsistent, and ultimately, uninteresting.

This situation is the equivalent of putting on a panel about “The Internet” in 1995 and inviting somebody from a dial-up service, an online bulletin board operator, and a person from Macy’s in charge of their first tentative steps into ecommerce to be on the panel, and then asking them “So, what should we think about this Internet thing?”

Not a prescription for actionable insight.

How to do this panel right

The problem is that AI is a vast topic. If you take three random one-liter samples from the Pacific Ocean, taken together they’re not going to tell you much about the whole ocean.

Stop right now. Think harder. Here are some suggestions on creating a panel that people might actually learn from.

  1. Tap someone with broad knowledge to assemble and moderate the panel. Examples might be an industry analyst, a journalist, the person in charge of AI at a major user company, or a thought leader who regularly comments on the topic and has demonstrated broad familiarity with the topic.
  2. Decide on a specific question you want the panel to answer. In a publishing conference (my area of specialty), this might be, “How will AI change the way we write, edit, and publish books?” At a statistical conference this might be, “How will AI change how we collect and analyze data?”
  3. Choose knowledgeable users for the panel. In my industry, I’d love to hear from an author who uses AI extensively, a publishing professional using AI to vet and edit books, and a publishing lawyer who’s knowledgeable about copyright and fair use issues. Note that this list does not include a guy who has played around a bit with ChatGPT, the CEO of a publisher who’s not in touch with the issues but has political pull, or a well-known tech antagonist. The idea is to get at how people are actually using AI in their work, with a broad range of examples. The aforementioned knowledgeable moderator can prod these folks to share their actual experience and the pitfalls they learned to avoid.
  4. Do not put an AI vendor on the panel. It’s soooo tempting to get the CEO of one of the approximately 12,602 AI startups since she “understands the technology” and will be happy to say yes to your invitation. But vendors tend to focus on their specific niche, so their knowledge will be circumscribed — and regardless of how often you say “no sales pitch,” they’ll be tempted to speak about what they know, which is how their product works. Trust me, your audience is far more interested in how actual users get work done with AI than the difference between deep neural-net based LLMs and RAG hallucination mitigation.

If you work backwards from the result, it is clear why this panel makeup is an improvement. The result you want is that both newbies and more experienced industry participants will learn what sorts of useful things they can use AI for, with some specific and interesting tips and stories about how people like them get work done. You’d also like the more strategic members of the audience (senior managers, corporate strategists, and the like) to get a picture of where the technology is going.

Actual experienced users with a variety of job descriptions and industry roles, moderated by a knowledgeable analyst/journalist, will generate that result.

A random collection of people who can spell “AI” won’t.

Because I ghostwrote a book about AI and am writing chapters about it other books right now, I know enough to realize that I’m not an expert. (I’m on the downslope of the Dunning-Kruger curve.) But depending on your industry, I have ideas on people smarter than me.

If this panel appears in your next event, I’d be excited to listen to it. And I bet a lot of other people would, too.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.