At a young age, Paul Vaillant recalls tugging on his mother’s sleeve, pointing towards the ditch diggers on the side of the road and saying “I want to be a ditch digger.” Today, Paul recollects, “where would we be without those men in the ditch? We’d be driving on bumpy roads, through the forest, or graveyards of broken-down cars.” Paul always had a fascination with building things. At one point, he explored architecture, but he felt it was a little too artistic versus what he wanted to do. Paul wanted to work in the field of engineering on the digital side of things, which naturally led him to study computer engineering at the University of Alberta.
Coming out of university, Paul worked for companies in IT, but it wasn’t the help desk role that kept him satiated; he was always happiest when he got to build solutions for his workplace. “When you work in a big IT department, there wasn’t much opportunity to pick which projects I wanted to work on, so I joined a startup because I had the opportunity to start building a product.”
He didn’t look back.
Over the course of 15 years, he worked at a number of different startups, some of which he sold, some that failed —but nonetheless, it was the joy that Paul found in building products and services and what could be accomplished with artificial intelligence (AI) that drove his curiosity to the work Testfire was doing.
“This is as an amazing time to be in technology as ever. As back to the early days when technology first came out,” says Vaillant, “if you were to take that type of experience back in time to the point where we just had directories and compare it to what search engines are today, people would have thought you were crazy; it was a pipe dream then. I think AI is one of those technologies that’s in the same camp. It’s going to allow us to create things that we’ll look back on how we imagined it was impossible, while we will live in a world where that will be real and ubiquitous because of AI.”
Making meetings suck less
When you look at the analogy of when computers first started – before Excel became an everyday tool – companies had stacks of paper they had to work with. The same analogy can be used to describe how meetings are conducted today. “Meetings happen in person or over the phone, and unless someone writes something down or performs a manual task to document something, meetings are just something that happen, but there is no intrinsic computer involvement in those meetings,” Paul says.
“All of the value we want to derive from a meeting currently has to happen manually. It has to be because someone took notes or is tracking action items. If someone forgets that the stack of documents from the previous meetings exist, or if someone forgets the contents of the last meeting, no connections can be made in future meetings.”
Humans are the biggest challenges to meetings today. Some of the things Paul is working on with Testfire’s flagship product, Hendrix.ai, is to take the possibility of what AI can bring and apply it into meetings. “A computer can process more data that a human can keep in their mind at once. When you bring AI into a meeting, that is an interesting way to bring these technologies onto the table. Is it possible for one person or a small group of people to attend every meeting that is held in a large organization? That’s not possible. Computers don’t sleep; they have as much storage as we want to give to them. For a computer to attend multiple meetings in an organization simultaneously and try to tackle these challenges, then it becomes possible.”
"It's going to allow us to create things that will make us look back on how we imagined it was impossible, while we will live in a world where that will be real and ubiquitous because of AI."
- Paul Vaillant, CTO, Testfire Labs
Tackling the uncertainty of AI
The uncertain question still looms: what does AI integration mean for our jobs? It doesn’t mean that jobs will be taken away, Paul believes, but the jobs will change and there will be a prerequisite for people to be ready for what the new reality will be. “This is something that we’ve experienced in the past; people take driver training now, which before cars those courses didn’t exist. Or before the typewriter, typing courses were being taken—and before that penmanship courses were being taken.” New technologies always bring along new educational requirements, and it is something people are starting to make sure skills are being incorporated in our education system.
“We’re not getting rid of people, we are trying to make the experiences that people have more meaning, fulfilling, and rich in order to be able to take the grunt work out. Ensuring that the places where people are bad at remembering or indexing hundreds of documents can instead be done by a machine that would, in turn, be able to execute those tasks faster and more accurately, so the focus can be placed on more important things.”
The groundwork for Hendrix.ai
Testfire Labs laid a really good foundation with Hendrix to be able to deliver on that core value of getting Hendrix into the meeting; however, Paul still questions what Hendrix could do better. What other meeting minutia can Hendrix handle?
“I think this is an apt analogy for all modern software, but the software is a living, breathing organism—in the sense that the intent is to get away from building a piece of software and moving onto the next project, but rather more of a rolling release so you always have the most up-to-date version. Hendrix should always be moving in a particular direction, and that’s what we want to do with him. He’s always getting better, there are always more features coming in, and he is always evolving.”
A deeper integration of Hendrix into an organization is on our roadmap. “There’s a wonderful potential for Hendrix to surface the relevant information that helps drive additional value out of meetings. When people are in a meeting, how can we make sure an important decision can be made as quickly as possible?”
Today, if a decision has to be made in a meeting, but all the necessary information to make that decision has yet to be collected, there is already a stalled initiative to that decision. What if instead assigning tasks to collect that information and then book a follow-up meeting the following week or month, the information can be delivered instantly because it’s already archived. “If we could integrate Hendrix deeper into our organization, there is an opportunity there for meetings to have value.”
Hendrix also has the opportunity to help larger organizations who have multiple language and culture challenges. “Imagine if Hendrix could provide individual participants an experience where they are able to be more engaged because they are hearing it in a language they have the best grasp in. Canada is multilingual, and if there are English and French speakers in a meeting, but their grasp of the opposite language is not strong, what if both of those people can participate in the meeting with the language of their choice?”
What's next for AI meeting software?
There are some exciting things on Hendrix’s roadmap, but Testfire is still exploring the possibilities AI technology can achieve. “There is an assumption that Hendrix will be done one day, but I don’t know if Hendrix will ever be done. We are now getting into all of these tailored experiences, in various industries, which will deliver very specific insights, providing a lot more value to people. The technology, at this point, is so vast and there’s a lot still to explore.”
AI can do some amazing things around speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and being able to extract concepts. We can have a computer tackle transcription in meetings, process them, and start to see correlations on a broad scale across a number of meetings so they can remind a person that this information or these documents already exist. That’s a lot of value.
Nevertheless, Paul believes AI is on the cusp of being able to drive those amazing and awesome experiences. Like the ditch diggers, Paul will continue to pursue his passion in building products and services like Hendrix as Testfire’s chief technology officer.
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