Bringing superhuman capabilities to business


Artificial intelligence is all around us, and the businesses seeking a competitive edge are already on the path of adoption. Are you?

By Kirsten Doyle, published in Brainstorm 26 June 2019

Humans have been highly effective at collaborating for millennia, and have used this attribute to achieve far beyond what any individual could achieve. However, we are still bound by constraints and natural limits that cannot be overcome. For example, most humans cannot conceptualise beyond three dimensions, react in less than 0.1 seconds, read a million books, translate between any languages, tackle a million problems at once – the list goes on.

AI will make superhuman capabilities available that we will harness to take our understanding of the universe around us and the evolution of human society to the next level.

So says Andrew Quixley, Data Science and AI sales lead at IBM South Africa. “And who wouldn’t want some super humans in their organisation? Businesses that utilise AI will outperform others because they will be able to accomplish things that those without AI cannot.”

At a strategic level, businesses need AI to help make sense of this new world where the amount of data being generated is overwhelming and we don’t have the capabilities to process it manually, says Stuart Michie, digital lead at ABB Ability, Southern Africa. “We’re receiving much more information from our devices and systems. AI helps us process this information in order to derive value and insights from the data being generated. Fundamentally, we can do more with less. We’re able to achieve greater reach in terms of efficiencies. It brings expertise into our business that we previously wouldn’t have had access to without AI.”

According to Derek Bose, Oracle’s Applications SA country leader and SADC region cluster leader, AI is finishing what business intelligence started. By gathering, contextualising, understanding and acting on huge quantities of data, AI has given rise to a new breed of applications, one that’s continuously improving and adapting to the conditions around it. The more data available for the analysis, the better the quality of outcomes or predictions.

AI is rapidly emerging as the most important and transformative technology of our time, says Martin Pienaar, COO of Mindworx. “This makes it the best time for an organisation to transform its core processes and business models to benefit from AI capabilities. The ROI is obvious for large companies that want to become leaner, more nimble and eliminate time-consuming and expensive processes. The inevitable by-product will improve levels of customer service and efficiency, and reduce operating costs.”

It’s got to be AI

“Ask the leadership of any reasonably-sized company what technology they’re looking to implement and they’ll almost invariably mention AI. In theory, that’s great,” adds Ryan Falkenberg, CEO of Clevva. “AI has the potential to fundamentally change the way a business operates and create a great customer experience. And the longer the business uses an AI application and the more data it can leverage, the more it can learn and the better each experience should get.”

Implemented badly, however, AI can be a total disaster, he adds. “Rather than feeling like the business they’re dealing with cares about them, too often, customers are left with the impression that service has been handed over to a bunch of dim-witted machines. Apart from a few forward-thinking exceptions, companies tend to put up a chatbot on their website in the hope that it will learn from each interaction it has with a customer, and that its answers will become more nuanced over time. They also operate in the belief that customers will tell the chatbot when it’s wrong, helping to train it further.”

That would be great, continues Falkenberg, if the chatbot was actually equipped for this, but for the most part, chatbots are simply going through the company’s existing knowledge base and serving up a document, or worse, multiple documents, to try to help. “It’s essentially a slightly smarter form of search.”

AI is here to stay and it’s already part of your life, says Ian Jansen van Rensburg, lead technologist and senior systems engineer manager for VMware EMEA. AI has been around for a long time, but is becoming mainstream as it’s being democratised through hyperscale cloud providers, and made easier to leverage than before.

“AI already exists in many sectors of business and in our personal lives. If you use a smartphone, you’re interacting with AI whether you know it or not. The same applies to smart cars and drones. Take connected Tesla cars; if, for example, you had to take an unanticipated hard-left on a cross-road, all Tesla cars will know how to manoeuvre that turn once they’re updated. Then there are social media feeds; most of your decisions are being impacted by AI. The examples are numerous: music and media streaming services make decisions for you, online ads track statistics and serve up ads based on them. Whether you’re using Google or Apple Maps for navigating, or calling an Uber, or booking a flight ticket, you’re using AI. Even the banking and finance industry relies on AI for things like customer service, fraud protection, investment, and much more. Smart home devices learn our behaviour so they can adjust the settings themselves to make the experience as frictionless as possible, security and surveillance use object and facial recognition and are moving towards a time where security camera feeds are being monitored by an AI and not a human,” he says.

Dual-pronged approach

Quixley says the uses of AI in business are tending to centre around two domains. “One is the automation of process steps that required a certain degree of cognitive engagement from a human. This frees up human capacity to do something better and more valuable. The second is data science, modelling the outcomes of complex scenarios by using algorithms – developed by machine learning models – that have predictive power. A strong business case can be made for both. Look at automation – an AI-powered chatbot can resolve a customer enquiry for as little as 1% of the cost of having a human do the same task. In the second domain – getting an understanding of something that was previously beyond comprehension, or the ability to predict correctly instead of speculating unsuccessfully – would have almost unlimited applications and benefits in business.”

But with bots taking over mundane tasks, the question of whether or not AI is threatening job security arises. As all significant advances in technology have done in the past, AI is already changing the nature of work, but the smartest business is seeing an opportunity, not a threat, says Quixley. “It’s an opportunity to liberate people from tedious repetitive work and allow them to do more interesting and m ore valuable activities. Adopted and deployed responsibly, the potential disruption to individuals can be minimised, and – as with the previous major advances of mechanisation, automation and robotics – the overall outcome will be a larger economy and new kinds of work.”

According to Pienaar, AI isn’t threatening jobs. “In fact, being able to work with machines, rather than seeing them as a threat, is the right way to look at it. The rapid growth in robot deployment has led to a shortage of skills around the world. This has forced local companies to employ ready-trained staff from countries where this expertise has been growing over the last decade. In turn, it offers a great opportunity for South Africans with this skill to use it overseas. This, however, results in higher levels of vacancies here, which is why there is merit in training robotics analysts and why training is needed to ensure local youth can keep pace with these AI-driven developments as future career opportunities.”

Michie agrees: “ What w e’re finding i n industry is that the specialists we need, or the technical expertise required to do the jobs, are becoming less readily available. In this instance, AI is bringing in augmentation of those missing skills to enable business to do the things that they need to do. We see AI as an amplification of available skills, to distribute those skills further and enable them to do specialised jobs. This makes business more efficient and, at the end of the day, more efficient businesses will generate more jobs.”

Deploying AI

So how should businesses go about embarking on an AI journey? “The best businesses are taking a holistic approach to the adoption of AI, by considering – at exco level – the likely impact across all areas of the business, especially the human resources. A holistic plan will consider headcount, training, skills development, talent acquisition, and the timings of any planned changes, not just the technology choices or the bottom line impact,” says Quixley.

It depends on the business, industry and strategy, adds Falkenberg. “That said, companies need to see the adoption of AI as a journey, not an event. There are so many dependencies that need to be considered for a data-driven ecosystem to be created, one where AI can truly thrive. This requires a pragmatic digital migration strategy that looks to build a foundation that can hold in a digital economy. It also requires a pragmatic human migration strategy that looks to bleed in digital intelligence in a way that first augments existing workforces and then, as full automation is realised, allows these people to migrate into new roles and capabilities.”

According to Bose, to take full advantage of AI, employees and leadership need to be on the same page. “A workforce that doesn’t have the chance to develop an AI-based skillset won’t show the productivity gains or improved customer satisfaction that workplace AI can deliver. Business leaders will have a critical role in addressing this skills gap.”

With increased success in having AI handling routine and repetitive tasks, there comes an inherent need for businesses to hone their skills and leverage machines to make them smarter, adds Pienaar. “Organisations will need to rethink the skills they require and rapidly re-skill the workforce and change its composition. Artificial intelligence will play a major role in equipping staff with additional skills and capabilities, allowing them to remain competitive in an ever-changing world.”

For Michie, it’s about solving a problem that’s going to bring tangible business returns for customers. “AI may or may not be a component of that solution. AI will be a component in the toolkit that we would use to address and solve problems. This is where modern businesses are moving towards where we look to how we solve the business issue and incorporate AI if required.”

And when it comes to using an existing solution versus building from scratch, Falkenberg says building from scratch is always enticing as it gives businesses the opportunity to shape the solution exactly to their specifications. “That said, it also traps them into maintaining and defending this investment when alternatives come flooding in. Many companies are looking to leverage configurable platforms that offer powerful functional and technical features that can be configured to reflect their unique business formula. The onus is then on the software provider to keep the technology relevant, while the business can focus on keeping their business logic relevant.”

While playing in blue sky ‘labs’ is fun, ultimately, businesses are looking for practical, implementable solutions that can be applied to give them a market advantage, says Falkenberg. “The real test is what you can deliver into production, not what you can demonstrate in a prototype. Keep the 80/20 principle, which states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, firmly in mind, and don’t be too carried away with the art of the possible when the business is living reality today.”

Don’t delay getting into AI – your competitors are already running hard, concludes Quixley.

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