Navigating the Future: Leslie Sarasin's Insights on AI

Jamie Grill-Goodman
Editor in Chief
Jamie goodman
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Sixty-two percent of retailers are using data analytics to optimize pricing and promotions and to assist with assortment planning and replenishment, according to FMI. Credit: Jamie Goodman

Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI, explored the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the food and retail industry at the recent FMI Midwinter Executive Conference, held by FMI, The Food Industry Association.

Sarasin’s keynote session “Taking AI Personally” explored the opportunities, ethical challenges, and the need for maintaining a human touch in the ever-evolving landscape of generative AI.

Sarasin commenced the session by acknowledging the rapid growth of AI, exemplifying ChatGPT's journey to 100 million users in just over 12 months. She emphasized the dynamic nature of the field, highlighting the societal attitudes toward AI as reflected in global surveys. The varying perspectives on the benefits and risks of AI, coupled with concerns raised in polls, set the stage for a thought-provoking discussion.

“ChatGPT's release generated much excitement, public interest, and to some degree, astonishment regarding the capabilities of generative artificial intelligence for schools, communications departments, and the publishing world,” said Sarasin. “It also raised its fair share of urgent questions regarding the value and nature of human creativity, career choices, the future of certain artistic industries and the potential for widespread copyright infringement. Today, these questions remain largely unanswered. So if this raises your level of concern, you're not alone in that.”

Sarasin integrated real-world examples, drawing attention to the impact of AI on Hollywood, where strikes and legal battles have taken place. First was the Screen Actors Guild actors and writers strike, then the Authors Guild and 17 authors filed a class-action suit against OpenAI, the parent company of ChatGPT, accusing the company of using copyrighted works in the training of their model. “And just before the end of the year, the New York Times filed a lawsuit against OpenAI and Microsoft for infringing copyrighted works, opening a new front in the increasingly intense battle over the training and application of AI technologies,” she shared. 

The session shed light on the complex landscape of AI, acknowledging its integration into everyday life, both personally and professionally.

“So all of this is to say that, on the one hand, there's a great deal of concern about AI that warrants our diligence, attention, and then on the other hand, we're all deeply embedded in AI,” noted Sarasin.

Sarasin outlined the significant role AI plays in the food industry. Notably, retailers are leveraging AI for personalized customer service and optimizing various aspects of their operations.

“Sixty-two percent of retailers are using data analytics to optimize pricing and promotions and to assist with assortment planning and replenishment,” she noted. “Thirty-five percent of suppliers are using artificial intelligence to leverage customer data, and 21% of retailers use technology services for food service ordering in 2022, and 26% were planning this in 2023.”

She outlined the potential of AI in revolutionizing various aspects of the food industry, from precision agriculture and supply chain optimization to smart manufacturing and personalized nutrition, all while keeping customer service at the forefront.

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Attendees of the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference network and enjoy snacks and coffee from La Colombe Coffee in between sessions. Credit: Jamie Goodman

The heart of Sarasin's message however, revolved around the need for careful consideration and governance in the AI space. Citing the Biden Administration's Executive Order on the safe, secure, and trustworthy development and use of artificial intelligence, Sarasin emphasized the importance of deeper conversations, exploration of guardrails, and addressing moral questions surrounding AI capabilities. She highlighted FMI's commitment to facilitating these crucial conversations within the industry.

Sarasin noted that later that day later the FMI board of directors was meeting to review, and potentially adopt a policy consideration on the use of AI. “We know this is going to be an evolving piece, but we also know that we can't rely on tech companies to develop a responsible use policy that's reflective of what's needed for the food industry,” she said.

She emphasized the need for AI to serve humanity, not the other way around. 

For our industry, whether AI gets utilized in the HR department to enhance training or interview processes; is implied in customer analytics to better personalize the shopper experience; is engaged to improve the efficiency of productivity of operations; or is used to optimize the supply chain to improve fulfillment and better control fraud, theft and shrinkage; however it's applied — AI must serve us, not the other way around,” she said. 

Sarasin challenged the audience to rise to the occasion, engage with AI boldly, and shape its trajectory by adopting their own framework, that reflects their companies’ values and mission. She noted “that framework should be in existence, leaders should be familiar with it, and those processes and that audit should happen to ensure that AI is safe, and most importantly, it's meeting the objective that we set of it.”

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