Guest Column with Kris Adams: September 2023

A glowing blue outline of a person's head filled with binary code and computer lines.

THE YEAR OF THE MACHINES

This fall, in Northwest Arkansas, the Tech Summit takes on the current zeitgeist

Kris Adams, NWA Tech Summit Director

EVERY YEAR, THE Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit begins with brainstorming sessions among our advisory committee of some 60 people representing entities from tech startups to tech accelerators to tech freelancers to leaders of the very largest organizations here in our area. It’s just a really good mix of people with different stakes in the NWA Tech Summit, which really helps us refine content. They’re a great sounding board, and they have wonderful ideas.

This year’s Summit theme came about as we were looking back at the content tracks we offered last year in an attempt to do a bit of forecasting, to see where we thought the conversation was naturally going to go. In 2022, our flagship track was in mobility and supply chain, and our presenters and speakers kept talking about the push toward automation and the push toward AI. They talked about drones that were revolutionizing supply chains, and how Walmart was looking at doing market fulfillment centers that were going to be fully automated with smart robots that could pull inventory and help streamline the process of getting goods out for pickup orders and delivery. We just kept hearing the words automation and AI over and over and over again. Also, the Tech Summit was going to turn 10 years old this year, and we wanted to do something special for our big 10th birthday. Finally, a colleague we work closely with, a person who’d helped start the original Tech Summit, said, “We should take this AI theme. We should run with it.”

We announced the theme—”The Year of the Machines”—earlier this year, right before the initial ChatGPT buzz, and by the time we released actual program information, the whole AI revolution media circus was in full swing. The funniest part was, we had done a lot of our press releases using GPT-3 technology. Within an hour of sending out the initial email, I heard from OpenAI that they were now in their fourth iteration—ChatGPT-4. I was like, It’s moving so fast I couldn’t even get one press release out without it being outdated!

And that’s part of what “The Year of the Machines” is going to be about. It’s going to be about machine learning, machines that are doing some of their own thinking, machines that are autonomous, and how the technology that we have is being revolutionized by this AI push. How these machines, whether it be smart software, or robots, or electric vehicles, are just changing our lives and propelling all industries forward.


ONE OF OUR major tracks this year will be security and privacy, because when you’re unleashing AI via autonomous machines, you want it to be secure on both the enterprise side and the consumer side. You want your privacy maintained for what you put into generative AI, as well as to how some of these artificially intelligent systems look at your data and interact with you in a digital space.

We’re also leaning into a programming track that we’re calling retail innovation. We know we’re in the home of retail in Northwest Arkansas, and there’s an enormous amount of overlap between some of the automation, AI, and retail solutions that are happening here in our own backyard. For example, Walmart has been deploying autonomous scrubbers in their Sam’s Club stores. Used to be, a
human would actually sit on a big riding scrubber and turn the steering wheel and drive it around to clean the floor. Now it’s fully automated. It drives itself. And it’s going to be at the Tech Summit. The Sam’s Club chief technology officer, Vinod Bidarkoppa, will be speaking, and they’re going to bring out this autonomous robot that they’ve named “Samuel Scrub.” I think we were the ones who asked them if it had a name, and they said it didn’t. “Well,” I said, “you need to give it one if we’re going to feature it. So Samuel Scrub it is.”

In addition to retail innovation, we’ll also do a track on advancing health access, equity, and outcomes. There’s a big tech push to make sure those who need healthcare have access to it, and that it’s done equitably. This tech is designed to help improve what happens on the backend so that patients feel better when they receive treatment. We’re also doing some programming for startups again—this is our startup and scale-up track. And then we always love doing content for high school students as well. Wednesday, November 1st, is the day we’re going to have specific programming for high school students. It’s going to be led by our good friends of the Summit, Grant Brewer at DroneUp and Chris Moore of Google. We’re working to build some sessions out specifically for high school students that will help expose them to things like technology career paths, as well as some kind of guidance on how to continue their upskill process so they at least know the types of technology skills that they need to have under their belt to be relevant in a job market. The ultimate goal is to keep these high school students in and around Arkansas, or least coming back to Arkansas after they’ve finished college.

This year, we have probably the largest number of high-level speakers coming to the event than ever before. For example, Jon Alferness, the chief product officer at Walmart, is going to be speaking. Tom Bianculli, the CTO of Zebra Technologies, will be on the bill. And I’ve already mentioned Vinod Bidarkoppa, CTO of Sam’s Club. It’s really gratifying to get so many C-suite tech leaders to join us and share their expertise and insights. We also have a stellar lineup of sponsors, without whom the event couldn’t happen. This includes everybody in tech here in Northwest Arkansas, from Walmart, Tyson, and JB Hunt, to the University, Zebra Technologies, Verizon, T-Mobile for Business, and IBM, which is playing a really big role this year. We’re even attracting new sponsors from outside of NWA. Meta will be joining us this year for the first time as a sponsor of our VIP Reception.

We’re also doing a lot more to adapt the event to our unique locale. Last year, we really wanted to highlight Downtown Bentonville, so we did a wonderful multi-site event. Having outgrown the capability to do multi-site, this year we’re going to go back to the Rogers Convention Center, October 29th through November 1st, for our programming (for tickets, click on www.nwatechsummit.com). Then we’re going to “play” in Bentonville after our programming is over.

One of the funny things we noticed last year was that even though we had planned a number of networking events on one specific night, a lot of our attendees registered for multiple events whose times kind of overlapped. At first I thought this was an error, or maybe people hadn’t read the email carefully. But they had actually seen what none of us on the planning side saw. They essentially turned it into a food and drink crawl, going from one site to another to another, progressing throughout the night. People were surprised that that’s not what we were intending to do.

So this year we’re aiming to do that intentionally. For our social and networking events, we’re going to be featuring this area near our office, which is referred to as The Collaborative, culminating with our VIP Reception in the Tower Bar at the Momentary. And so we’ll have this nice blend of the convention center and showcasing Bentonville as well. It should be fun, and it was only our attendees and their response last year that opened our eyes to this idea.


THIS YEAR, WE’VE also presented a series of AI programs leading up to the main Summit, and one idea that’s been mentioned onstage a few times is that AI itself is not going to take your job—but the person who knows how to use AI may well take your job.

I think that idea is spot on. At least this early in the process, nobody should be worrying that they’re soon to be replaced by a robot. On the other hand, people should be concerned that if they don’t keep pace with this technology, they’re going to be left behind. That’s one of the many benefits of events like the Summit, as well as the smaller AI events leading up to it. Several people have talked about the new kinds of jobs that AI will bring with it—in-demand jobs like Prompt Engineer. Who can ask the best questions to generate the best types of data coming out of the AI that’s being utilized?

When you look at AI that way—as an opportunity rather than a threat—it loses some of that initial scary or dangerous sound. But it’s a very new technology, and getting good at it is going to require some skills that none of us have really mastered yet. So it’s still a very new and developing field that we’re all going to need to stay well informed on.

One of our big pushes this year is not just to feature “The Year of the Machines” in content and programming, but to make sure we feature a tactile, experiential side as well. What we’re hoping to do is bring in some of these autonomous and electric vehicles and other cutting-edge products so that visitors to the Summit can actually interact and engage with them. So if you’ve never driven an EV like the Ford Mach-E, or if you’ve never ridden in an autonomous vehicle, we’re looking for ways to make that a possibility for our attendees this year. That’s a really exciting prospect to me because the NWA Tech Summit has a reputation for great content. But going forward, we want to make sure that not only do we do great content, but you can also walk away from the Summit having actually experienced a side of tech that you may never have experienced before.