Davos 2018: the age of artificial intelligence

There’s no doubt that AI is transforming the world

Having reflected on this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, something that struck me was when Google CEO Sundar Pichai boldly stated: “AI is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on. I think of it as something more profound than electricity or fire.”

His sentiment was echoed in numerous sessions, formal and informal, across Davos – the challenges and opportunities that AI and robotics pose to businesses were on everybody’s lips.

UK Prime Minister, Theresa May focussed on AI in her speech, reiterating her desire to invest in a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to advise on the ethical use of AI. French President Emmanuel Macron followed suit and launched a €10 billion innovation fund aimed at new technologies like AI. Meanwhile, a report by the Eurasia Group consultancy suggested that the US and China are engaged in a “two-way race for AI dominance”.

Brave new world

There’s no doubt that AI is transforming the world in which we live and work. It is creating new revenue streams, enabling businesses to work more efficiently and providing data which can help firms target prospects better and offer more personalised customer experiences. There was broad consensus at Davos that applied machine learning could be very helpful in operations such as fraud detection or targeting prospects.

We have first-hand experience of this at Tungsten Network where we are passionate advocates for what AI can do for good, for both suppliers and buyers to help them streamline processes. It can remove friction from the supply chain, saving businesses time and money, and provide companies with a raft of invaluable procurement data. Our spend analytics solution gives trading partners better intelligence around their shared activities, whether those involve shipping, invoicing or procurement, and enables them to eliminate inefficiencies and manage their supply chains better.

These are all welcome advancements – Tungsten Network’s Friction Index shows UK businesses are wasting on average £88,725 every year through outdated payment practices, and that almost 6,500 man hours are wasted annually due to paper-based manual processes, chasing invoice exceptions, discrepancies and errors and responding to supplier enquiries. Much of this can be managed automatically through adopting an e-invoicing service, freeing up staff to focus on much more productive and creative activity.

Legitimate concerns

While it is clear that AI is a force for good in eliminating errors and inefficiencies, many conversations at Davos turned to ethical considerations. For example, the impact on society, the role of humans versus machines and what AI will mean for job creation. Some were fearful, but others felt that AI could automate a large portion of administrative tasks, freeing employees to spend time on revenue generating work, strategic thinking and problem-solving.

AI has limitations: machine learning assumes the future will be the same as the past – which simply is not true. And this is where humans have the advantage. Barri Rafferty, global CEO of Ketchum, reassured us “there are four things AI can’t meaningfully do today: creativity, complexity, dexterity or empathy.”

The importance of reskilling

There is a clear hope and opportunity to hand the repetitive, predictable tasks over to the robots and focus ourselves on more creative roles which complement AI. As the adoption of technology increases, jobs will not become redundant, but rather skills will need to adapt to fit new jobs that are created.

This raises the question of skills: many of us at Davos talked about the need for the education system to be shaken up. The Lego Foundation chief, John Goodwin, warned that too many countries are still using education practices “established at the time of our grandparents”. That could be disastrous, with data showing two-thirds of primary children will go into jobs that don’t even exist yet.

We will need an army of workers with skills suitable for the new digital age – and the question is, are they being raised up? Are our schools preparing our children for life in and beyond the fourth Industrial Revolution?

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