AI has potential to transform southeastern Wisconsin industries

Economic Trends 2019

A rendering of MSOE’s computational science facility on North Milwaukee Street, viewed from the north. (Uihlein/Wilson — Ramlow/Stein Architects)

Southeastern Wisconsin’s key industries are primed for transformation thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence and deep learning.

While global tech giants have been on the forefront of pushing the field of AI, many legacy Milwaukee-area companies are poised to reap the benefits of the now-established tools of AI-powered analytics in 2019, said Dwight Diercks, a senior vice president at California-based NVIDIA and Milwaukee School of Engineering alumnus.


“AI is going to be huge for the medtech industry, the business analytics industry, the agriculture tech industry and industrial automation/manufacturing,” Diercks said. “The first wave of AI took over and was used by Amazon, Google and Facebook. That’s really paved the way for what’s going to be quite exciting for the Milwaukee ecosystem, as industries all start to embrace AI and hopefully get to a point where they can roll it out in their daily use.”

Diercks will provide a forecast for the region’s technology industry for 2019 at BizTimes Media’s annual Economic Trends breakfast on Jan. 25 at the Italian Conference Center in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward.

To keep up with the competition, businesses in southeastern Wisconsin – including those that have not historically fit the traditional definition of a “tech company” – will need to embrace one of their most valuable assets: the vast amounts of data on their businesses, Diercks said.

If harnessed properly, retailers can use AI to reduce waste. Manufacturers can mitigate manpower shortages through robotics. Medtech companies can push new medical advancements. Farmers can use robotic pickers to expedite their harvesting.

“AI for industry, it comes right at the heart of Milwaukee,” Diercks said. “It’s all about getting Milwaukee ready for the transition. It will take time, but the advantage that all of these incumbent businesses in Milwaukee have is the innovation is no longer AI. That’s just the tool. The innovation is all of the data that these companies own. So if they can use data to transform their businesses, they will ride the wave going forward. That’s the opportunity and the challenge.”

Diercks and his wife, Dian, gave $34 million in 2017 to build a new MSOE facility focused on artificial intelligence. The building, which is currently under construction and expected to open in the fall, will house the school’s new computer science degree program. It will be outfitted with a GPU-accelerated supercomputer that will be used by students and companies, as well as designated office spaces for corporate partnerships.

Diercks said the new building is aimed at producing more computer scientists and data scientists prepared to enter industry.

Diercks and his wife, Dian, gave $34 million to build a new MSOE facility focused on artificial intelligence. The building, which is currently under construction, is expected to open in the fall. (Rendering: Uihlein/Wilson — Ramlow/Stein Architects)

“The school will help create data scientists and AI knowledge within the region,” Diercks said. “Then, what it’s going to take from businesses is those folks need to take their people who know their business and now their data, and re-skill them to be able to utilize the skills of AI to transform their industry.”

The need for data science talent continues to grow as companies across industries recognize the advantage of having in-house expertise regarding data science – or the extraction of useful information from large data sets – to make decisions, solve problems and create new products. Other universities in the region have also recently launched initiatives related to data science. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette University are partnering with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. to establish a $40 million data science institute, which will focus on bolstering data science education and research at the universities to prepare students for the growing career field. Carroll University in Waukesha has also launched its new Analytics and Business Intelligence Consortium, a membership-based organization spearheaded by the university’s School of Business that is aimed at helping companies and organizations engage with and manage big data.

The risk for well-established companies that don’t embrace the transformative potential of AI, Diercks said, is getting left behind.

“If you don’t adapt, you’re subject to, at some point, become obsolete,” he said. “So the question is, how do you make it easy for them to adapt? That’s a reason for what we’re doing with MSOE.”

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