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April 30 - May 1, 2025
North Javits Center | New York City

Ignore Data Fundamentals at Your Peril: A Conversation with Anees Merchant

Anees Merchant is Executive Vice President for Global Growth and Customer Success at Course5 Intelligence. His expertise is in AI and how it can be applied to scaling global businesses, a primary focus of the event. In his role as a Data Universe advisory board member, Merchant sat down with us recently to talk about developments in AI, why the hype around generative AI is turning into reality quicker than with other technologies, and what organizations will be able to learn in New York City this spring.

Data Universe: From your perspective is there a topic or a challenge or a technology in the data space that's engaging you most right now?

Anees Merchant: It’s all about generative AI right now. For me, it's constantly making me think of the possibilities of where it can be leveraged and the applications with it. Because it's so new, there are a lot of unknowns that are yet to be uncovered, which brings its own set of challenges and leads to the Holy Grail question: just because you can do it, should you be doing it? I do believe it will have immense impact in a good and positive way, not only to corporations, but also for the customers and society at large. But there will certainly be negative impacts as well. So, we all have to be careful and its that carefulness that is keeping me intrigued on a daily basis.

DU: Everybody is rushing to integrate generative AI into their products, but is it just marketing right now or is the value real?

AM: When you ask me that question, I think back to the hype around “Big Data.” While there is some truth in the promise of generative AI, there is some smoke as well. For some narrow use cases, I am seeing great deployments. But we’re definitely not close to artificial general intelligence, which some want you to believe. What's promising, though, and what’s different from the previous advancements in the AI space, is that we are going through the “hype cycle” faster. Hype is turning into reality a little quicker. That’s primarily because, unlike Big Data or how AI is affecting analytics, its not just for data scientists or technical users. Thanks to Chat GPT or products like Leonardo or Pica Labs, anyone can use it. My 15-year old son is using it for homework. Importantly, executives are also using it, so they can actually see and understand the impact it can have immediately on their—and their employees’—daily productivity.

Also, the ecosystem is advancing so rapidly. It’s almost become a race. Open AI, for instance, is talking about opening an AI store, which will have a significant impact on the entire ecosystem. Even Apple took many years after launching iOS to open the App Store. The timelines have become completely unpredictable.

DU: So, there is some “there” there. But is all the attention and resources given to generative AI coming at the expense of other technologies that are important?

AM: To adopt any technology, businesses have to get the basics right. There have been major failures deploying Big Data, BI, self-service, analytics and AI, etc. Some companies have learned the hard way that the basics—data infrastructure, the data itself, organizational readiness—are as important as the model itself. Some of the organizations that want to deploy generative AI are forgetting the basics. Mature companies that might have burned their hands trying to take advantage of some of these past trends have realized that they can do quick pilots, they can create a lot of PoC's but to scale and to make it enterprise ready, they have to get the basics right. More attention needs to be paid to those things.

DU: That seems to be where an event like Data Universe can be valuable, because you can cover the headline things that are generating conversation, but still make sure you are covering those basics.

AM: I agree completely, and that's why when the opportunity came my way to participate and contribute to Data Universe, I jumped at it. We get to define the world we live in and we need to talk about the whole thing. Each of the constituencies that are part of this event are important for the health of the entire industry.

DU: What do you hope are the main takeaways for people that attend Data Universe?

AM: One of the most important things I hope attendees come to understand is the interconnectedness of all the topics we’ll cover. It will be one of the first conferences I know of that will try to weave that thread between topics that may sound disparate or disconnected, but are really one story.

I'm also really excited that practitioners will be have multiple opportunities to learn  at different levels of sophistication. I hope to be able to deliver a customized experience to all levels of ability or understanding.