Equipping business leaders with valuable insights on how companies, governments and society are adapting to the rapid pace of technological change was front and centre at the inaugural Tech Horizons Executive Forum on Wednesday.

Hundreds of executives attended the sold-out event in Toronto with a unique, University of Waterloo-curated perspective that showcased the innovative lessons learned by business leaders managing the world of technological disruption.

The event – whose sponsors included Microsoft, Sun Life, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, Gowling WLG, the Human Resources Professionals Association, and Appen – was hosted by WatSPEED, the University of Waterloo’s professional, corporate, and executive education arm.

Attendees took part in a slew of special presentations, ranging from OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s discussion on the transformative power of artificial intelligence to Royal Bank of Canada CEO Dave McKay’s discussion about the challenges they face in tackling in the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Other discussions dealt with advising businesses on the ever-expanding range of looming cyber threats and how Canada can emerge as a leader in the clean tech revolution.

RBC CEO Dave McKay and Vivek Goel speaking

Royal Bank of Canada CEO Dave McKay (left) speaks with Waterloo president Vivek Goel during WatSPEED's Tech Horizons event.

“Since our origins, Waterloo has forged strong connections between our community, industry, and innovation,” said Dr. Vivek Goel, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo. “Today’s Tech Horizons Executive Forum provided a platform for attendees to learn about tomorrow’s potential innovations from Waterloo researchers and some of Canada’s most prominent business leaders.” 

Providing a platform to facilitate important conversations about tech and workforce trends is a key part in the program’s mandate, said Sanjeev Gill, associate vice-president of innovation at the University of Waterloo and executive director of WatSPEED.

“As the pace of digital disruption advances at hyper-speed, we need to ensure that business leaders can identify what trends lie beyond the immediate horizon to keep pace, or better yet, outpace those disruptions,” said Gill. 

“It could be from understanding how AI is shaping the future of business and society to how to prepare your company for the next wave of quantum computing. It’s through events like Tech Horizons where industry and academia can learn from each other on how to best address those challenges together.”

Generative AI, specifically how it will engage with human needs and requirements, was a hot-button topic that seemingly touched upon every panel discussion, with speakers highlighting the trillion-dollar opportunity that companies will likely have in the coming years amid an evolving labour market and shifting demographic trends. In one entertaining presentation, Waterloo associate professor of economics Dr. Joël Blit challenged attendees to workshop within small groups and reimagine how their own businesses could be transformed through technological advancements like AI.

“There’s no aspect of our society that is not going to use technology, either in the digital or physical worlds,” McKay told attendees during his fireside chat with Goel. “We’re going to reinvent our society yet again and that’s going to be a threat and create fear, the fear of change.”

Altman spoke with Dr. Jimmy Lin, co-director of the Waterloo AI Institute, in a keynote virtual chat where he encouraged businesses to keep experimenting with AI and other technologies to find the right fit that works for them.    

“The businesses that we see that will have the most success are the ones that are going to try using new tools,” said Altman. “The tools are improving at such a rate that the tools this year and seeing if they work or not will be very different than the tools they’ll use next year. It’s that culture of iteration that really matters [for businesses].”