AI Considerations for ‘the Next Normal’

AI Considerations for ‘the Next Normal’

Filter tag: AI and Digitisation, digital transformation

We recently discussed some of the strategic priorities regarding artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology that leaders will need to keep in mind for the future. Whilst deciding on the best plan of action, there are many factors to consider. What is the current vs future 2–5-year climate likely to be? What will this mean for workforce reskilling and day-to-day practices? What ethical and governance issues need to be considered? These are just some of the crucial questions to consider when undertaking any digital or change programme.


The State of AI

One core message relayed in the previous blog is well worth reiterating here: artificial intelligence is no longer a distant ‘maybe.’ The time has arrived to either sink or swim, adapt or get left behind. AI is guiding decisions from crop harvesting, to bank loans, to medical and pharmaceutical testing.

The gravity of the situation is evidenced strongly in the various tech-focused initiatives included in the UK Government’s latest budget plans. Their aim is to support businesses, enabling them to come to terms with an increasingly digital climate. Two initiatives worth mentioning are a new fast-tracked visa to draw in top tech talent from around the world, as well as the £520 million Help to Grow scheme which is aimed at aiding SMEs to be more competitive while enhancing digital skills. The scheme will allow up to 130,000 SMEs to have subsidised access to university-level training, 50 hours of tuition, and one-to-one business mentoring. In order to further support digital transformation in enterprise, the scheme also includes a 50% government contribution towards productivity software up to £5,000 and delivered in vouchers.

According to a report released at the end of 2020, the UK is ranked third out of the G20 countries in terms of total implementation, innovation, and investment in AI. Britain is ranked first overall in ‘Operating Environment,’ which encompasses the regulatory context and public opinion surrounding artificial intelligence.

The UK government has been taking strides for years to secure this position, most notably through the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Artificial Intelligence (APPG AI), of which Rialto is a permanent board member. The group meets regularly for evidence sessions and discussions of the major issues and innovations in AI, all with the intention of supporting the adoption of the technology in enterprise. Membership of this community and access to these sessions is one of the benefits of our AI Leaders Programme, designed to help leaders stay up to date with key developments.


The Human Cost of Automation

The Help to Grow scheme itself is an acknowledgement of the government’s understanding of the necessary role which AI and other technology will play in this next chapter. The pandemic was a ‘trial by fire’ lesson in the importance of digital transformation, as even the most resistant organisations and individuals were left with no choice but to rely on technology to function. The difference now is that while most of the technology we turned to during the pandemic helped us simply stay connected and stay afloat, the technology we turn to next will be strategically focused on creating impactful and long-term change.

Much has been written about the numerous benefits that AI and automation can provide to organisations, especially in terms of productivity and cost savings. Normally, when business leaders are thinking about their AI adoption plans and their objectives, it is these benefits that they tend to focus on. But opportunity has its costs, and the change in practices that AI brings about raises some very serious questions about the impact on human staff.

The major focus we should take from the Help to Grow scheme is the emphasis on skill building, which is both intentional and necessary. It is crucial that any organisation looking at digital transformation, no matter how big or small, ensure that human staff understand the technology they are adopting as well as its uses and implications. A common misconception surrounding AI is that it is here to replace the human workforce. The reality is that AI has not yet reached a level of human intelligence that would allow it to be fully self-sufficient. Most tools that businesses will be looking to adopt tend to rely on a partnership between human and machine. Teams will be needed to oversee the technology, but more importantly they will be required to make sense of any insights and transform them into actions for the business.

That said, there will be certain cases where technology does displace human staff. In AI’s current phase, this is more likely to occur in tasks or roles that are heavily routinised, potentially dangerous, or methodical. There are many examples of this already occurring in manufacturing, agricultural, and distribution functions, amongst others.

When beginning a transformation project, it is essential that the organisation’s leadership look beyond the benefits to the business and examine the potential impacts on staff. On one hand, effort is required to ensure that the staff you have on hand are well prepared to deal with any changes. This is where upskilling initiatives such as those included in the Help to Grow scheme become crucial in terms of involving staff in the next phase of development.

On the other hand, what action is required to assist those left behind by AI? One option is reskilling and helping leaders and staff to develop skills and capabilities that differ from those required by their current role so that they may serve the business in another area. This reskilling may also focus on the human capabilities that technology (currently) cannot replicate, such as empathy, understanding, or strategy. However, if redundancies are deemed necessary, how can you provide support? It might be worth investing in executive outplacement services to help these individuals transition to a new role. Regardless of the approach you select, it is essential that you factor in the human and reputational costs when adopting AI.


Bias and Ethics

Apart from the displacement and critical reskilling needs of the human workforce, additional concerns with AI tend to focus on macros issues such as privacy, bias, and ethics. Customers are wary about the amount of personal data collected and how it is used. In Europe and the UK there are certain policies in place such as GDPR which partially govern this, but at present, AI remains largely unregulated.

Several professional bodies have begun developing their own codes of practice, and governments around the world are working to do this on both a national and global level. The work of the APPG AI community is helping to contribute to these efforts in the UK, and these issues are often discussed in the group’s evidence meetings. But until there are a set of standards or guiding principles that businesses can refer to and adhere to, how can you ensure your AI project avoids violating any ethical rules?

The past year raised some very pertinent ethical discussions, especially in regard to diversity and equality. The leadership team will need to deeply examine and make decisions about potential issues that may affect the outputs of the new technology. This will require answering some very important questions. Who do you have overseeing these systems? How do you plan to use the data you collect? What steps do you intend to take to protect this data and the customers it belongs to? What potential biases may arise from the data or how it is treated? Having answers to the tough questions will help to develop a set of standards or practices for the entire organisation to abide by to ensure any major breaches are avoided.

When adopting AI or other disruptive technologies, it is easy to become blinded by the potential benefits for the business. As we enter the next ‘normal’, it is essential that leaders deepen their understanding of what is happening with technology on a macro level, what impacts might be felt within the business, and how they can ensure that their new endeavour has both internal and external benefits. Membership of the Rialto AI Leaders Programme is a great way to accomplish this, which enabled members to take part in thought-provoking high-level evidence sessions, hearing discussions of the major macro issues first-hand. Furthermore, members are kept up to date with the latest developments, trends, innovations, ROI case studies, and investments on AI.

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