Artificial intelligence provides us with an opportunity to unlock our intelligent minds from the mundane and focus on both the urgent and the future, writes Owen Lewis, Partner in Management Consulting at KPMG.
“Ireland stands out in the field of AI on a number of fronts, including the innovative ecosystem that has developed over the past few years that supports and fosters disruptive thinking, the access we have to global tech giants, the breadth and depth of talent that exists in our workplace and the spirit of entrepreneurialism,” says Lewis. “Coupling this with some global heavyweights in AI, both in academic and professional circles, then I can only see growth in this capability.”
Artificial intelligence has had a much more significant role in day-to-day life in recent years. The ability of a computer to observe and learn from patterns has been the driving force behind new technology – from alarms that can monitor our sleep cycles and tell us the best time to wake up, to the GPS systems that can redirect us on alternative routes in rush hour, the everyday uses of AI are increasing. But the real potential for AI lies in how it is used behind the scenes, analysing big data, and that is also the area where Ireland has the ability to lead.
The real challenge, according to Lewis, is retaining talent: “Our challenge remains how we retain talent when such amazing opportunities exist for home-grown talent to be snapped up abroad. This is where Government policies need to continue to support local innovation and investment, and our success on the global stage for home-grown start-ups needs to be supported. Ireland is clearly capable to achieve this and requires us all to keep our eyes on the future as we consider priorities in Government investments, education and regulatory agility.”
Ireland may not be leading the way in the consumer branch of AI, but it has a rich history in advanced research and development of AI through universities and research institutes, which are often collaborations between academic institutions and the many large multinational tech companies that are based here.
Robots have been used to carry out routine HR work such as gathering data on job applicants and sending follow-up letters.
In terms of actually hiring a robot, Owen Lewis says this is a somewhat “trite phrase invented to be provocative”.
“We don’t recruit a 5-axis precision lathe into our engineering workshop, or hire a cloud platform to manage our data. Perhaps in the future we might be hiring humanoids to be part of our home or work lives but for now I would like to think we hire amazing people and help them be even more amazing by giving them some pretty exciting technology in their toolboxes,”.
There is a serious question for organisations to ask themselves around “hiring a robot”.
“Do we want to have robots working directly for us or should we outsource design and the run of work that robots do to an organisation that can operate this as a service, in order to let our organisations focus on doing what is core to our business? Getting back to the basic question of what’s core to your organisation is an important yardstick,” he says.
However, hiring robots can benefit the workplace and make employees’ lives easier, he adds.
“Freeing up humans to do more exciting, value-added and meaningful work has always been the underlying value of technology and this is no different with AI and robotics. Just think how much good we can add to the world if we can take the robot out of the human and give the human space to be truly intelligent.”
Keeping employees informed about change and how it will affect them is crucial to the successful introduction of AI.
Traditionally, organisations worked in a command-and-control structure, but more agile practices in the workplace see frontline staff bring insights about what customers want from working with them every day. They then collaborate in cross-functional teams, with short-term goals, to deliver new products and services to test and refine with their customers.
AI is a natural extension to this new way of working and brings with it an opportunity to completely change the interactions organisations have with their customers, their colleagues or partners in their ecosystem, Lewis says.
“For example, even without fully rolled-out autonomous vehicles, smart cars can capture causes of road traffic accidents through multiple sensory devices and provide this to an automated AI-enabled claims processor that can pay out the claim without the need for humans to get involved. What does this mean for an insurance organisation looking to provide meaningful employment for its staff? It means that the management team and staff now need to work even closer together to collaborate on what value they provide to their customers, cutting out bureaucracy and building trust with customers on broader elements of their lives such as medical well-being and fitness,” he says.
Lewis says ethics will play a big role in the adoption of AI and agreeing standards and principles that innovators should subscribe to is as important in an AI world as it is in our own “human intelligence” world.
“For example, the collective responsibility we each have and that leaders of governments have to prevent the violation of basic human rights should be embedded into the ethics of artificial intelligence. Here the debate on universal basic income and fair distribution of wealth to give opportunity to all of society needs to further play out.”
“Understanding the biases and inequalities that have and still remain in our own society cannot form the basis of biased artificial intelligence decision-making is an important consideration.”
Getting your staff to realise they are a critical part of the future, finding ways to unlock their talent to work alongside new and emerging technologies, and be the best their customers could ever wish for is the challenge, Lewis says.
Those who keep pace with the changing employment landscape by continual upskilling have nothing to fear from automation, say experts.
Without wishing to belittle real and tangible impacts technology can have on society where jobs can be irreversibly displaced, the downsides of major disruptive forces often arise from the failure of society to collectively and proactively plan for our future,” according to Lewis.
“The human race has never let technological advancements put them out of business before and I am convinced that this new wave of intelligent machines will free up humankind to focus on critically important aspects that are in some ways a greater threat to our existence such as climate change, rapid decline in biodiversity, aging populations, explosion of both mental and physical conditions such as dementia and obesity.”
AI is being used to improve productivity and efficiency in healthcare, agriculture, HR and talent management.
AI is already providing very practical solutions in the agri sector,” says Lewis. “For example, solar-powered robotics that are controlled by a mobile app can be used to perform tasks such as spreading herbicide or weeding large areas of land. Using GPS and sensors, machines can negotiate terrain, avoiding damage to crops, and can deploy very targeted and precise applications of chemicals, reducing waste and harm to the environment.”
KPMG Partner Owen Lewis says people must be open to AI’s use in the workplace. “AI should aim to enhance human thought rather than replace it. Considering it in this context opens the door to see the scale of the opportunities, rather than just the threats.”
But we also need to be realistic. “In saying that, there are jobs that will be replaced by AI, but the impact of this can be better managed if we are collectively and proactively planning for a future that is open to and includes AI. For HR and talent management, there are many opportunities to improve the workplace and the worker experience, rather than replace the worker. There are obvious AI applications on the administration side, particularly for larger companies, but there are also other opportunities for employers to create a more personalised employee experience using data to analyse and identify employees’ different skillsets and motivators and optimise the workplace accordingly.”
Artificial intelligence is already being deployed in a variety of ways to improve healthcare and health systems around the world. Wearable devices like Fitbits are providing clinicians with data to help manage early-stage heart disease, powerful algorithms are utilising big data analytics to review millions of patient scans to identify emerging diseases at an early stage, while the same systems are being used to identify patients at risk of developing a certain condition.
An abridged version of this interview originally appeared in The Irish Times and is reproduced with their kind permission.