ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Does AI help or hinder productivity?

Stephen Westwood, the organiser and facilitator of our recent joint event with the Institute of Directors, AI – Artificial Intelligence: The key to increased productivity, considers the findings of the evening.

The event, held in IoD’s Edinburgh offices, was a follow-on to last year’s productivity event. At that event, it was concluded that it was not just capital investment that was needed to address this major challenge, but that motivating people and optimising behaviour are just as important. The essence is that happy people are productive people.

We have clearly not solved the issue of productivity – witness the continuing trend of “presenteeism”, working more than contracted hours for no extra pay.

So, the big question was “can AI (Artificial Intelligence) be the key to increasing productivity?”

Defining AI

The first question to consider is what do we mean by Artificial Intelligence? The answer was that it means different things to different people.

Are we on the cusp of a sci-fi future where we can relax and focus on our creative and leisure interests whilst robots do all the mundane, repetitive jobs? We have all seen the impact of robotics in engineering and manufacturing.

Can this be extended to such areas as healthcare and services? Most likely yes, and this is the reason why we see announcements about the scale of likely jobs losses.

Should we be alarmed, or should we grasp the opportunities that the technology can offer? We should certainly address it.

Are we doomed to be made redundant by technology, with our individuality erased as algorithms determine our behaviours and choices? Every day, we have instances of our “preferences” being identified to influence our buying behaviours. Just go on to your Netflix account. How extensive can this targeted marketing become? Will it be of benefit, or will it be an insidious impact to determine how we behave?

Could the use of software tools and machine learning enable us to operate more effectively and productively? We all use software tools – think of the Microsoft Office products.

Exploring AI

The purpose of this event was to explore the reality of AI, and to understand and examine how we can use it to make our lives more productive, less demanding and more creative. Three expert panellists – Gary Gillespie (Chief Economist, Scottish Government); Alastair Andrew (co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Airts); and Dimitrios Michelakis (Head of mapping and Earth observation at Ecometrica) – shared their perspectives and experiences. Their insights not only helped delegates better understand the world of AI, but also stimulated a post-presentation discussion that covered everything from ethics to the importance of cross-border collaboration.

The economics of AI

Gary outlined the very positive view being taken by the Scottish Government on how adopting AI can assist in the delivery of economic growth and benefits to society. It’s not just about wealth creation, but also about the ways in which social services can be delivered more effectively. Central to this is the idea that while productivity drives growth and wages, it is only truly beneficial if it also drives well-being.

Much of AI relates to machine learning, robotics and voice recognition, all of which have the potential to replace low/medium skilled roles. The major challenges are the scale and pace of the investment in education required to optimise skills levels to take on the more highly skilled roles that are already emerging.

As a great example of the use of robotics, Gary referred to an international conference at which he had been speaking and at which he had been introduced by a robot!

AI and automation

The prime focus of Airts, www.airts.co.uk, is to eliminate wasted effort and its current principal product is an automated, real-time, dynamic resource scheduling system. This has been developed for professional service providers and has the capability to address any scenario modelling. It is a software tool that can access high volumes of data and manage multiple what-if scenarios in a way that is massively more effective than anything that can be achieved by other data manipulation tools.

Alastair is an AI expert, having gained a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from the University of Strathclyde in 2014, after which he went on to co-found Airts. At the core of the business proposition is the capability to use algorithms and machine learning allied with the advancing processing power of computers to identify patterns in data. It does not have to offer the “magic” ideal, just be better than present capabilities to enable clients to increase their value.

In Alastair’s view, there is a lot of hype and mystique about AI; it has become fashionable for businesses to talk about their “AI strategy”. In essence, it is a means to enable businesses and other organisations to operate more effectively and more profitably. To quote Pablo Picasso – “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers”.

Applications that are out of this world

Dimitrios gave a fascinating insight in to the role of Ecometrica and the role of AI in space. Ecometrica’s business, (www.ecometrica.com), is to use observation data from space, air and land to deliver actionable insights for business, government and society. It currently monitors thousands of land assets.

The increased use of satellites – forecast to increase exponentially – can enable the capture of data on a massive scale from a vantage point that is literally out of this world. It enables the identification of risks and opportunities, particularly for the environment.

At the core of the business proposition is the ability to analyse the captured data by the use of algorithms to provide meaningful information to enable better judgements and decisions. Like Alistair, Dimitrios emphasised that it is the practical application of AI that is key, not AI itself. As he said, AI is not simply hype in the space sector; it is an operationally useful function that is already in use. To be truly effective, it requires applications experts, not just process experts.

My conclusions

There is a real risk that AI is seen as a fad or fashion. There is also a real risk that we miss out on the chance to harness its benefits because we do not fully understand what it is and how thoughtful application of AI can make a difference.

There is no doubt that the use of robotics will increase; likewise the use of algorithms to influence our behaviours will increase. Again, we need to understand and embrace the potential of this, not allow media scare stories to stop us exploring the possibilities.

On a philosophical level, we may choose to regard these factors as a negative progression.

We only need to look at the history books to appreciate what happens whenever there is a major technology leap (in this instance, the ability to use algorithms and machine learning allied with the advancing processing power of computers to identify patterns in data).
Time and time again, the Luddites have been proven wrong and there has been a major increase in enterprise and wealth creation.

So, while there are real risks of short-term job losses, it is essential that we embrace the opportunities to make ourselves as competitive as possible in the global market place, create more wealth and create a happier society.

May be we should refer to AI as “Applied Intelligence”!

Further reading