Guest blog: Why South West Business Leaders should begin to embrace Artificial Intelligence

Simon Sear from Digital Design Consultancy SPARCK shares his thoughts on why it's time to look at what machine learning can offer
8th December 2017

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one the most hyped and hotly debated technologies of today; excitement and concern growing in equal measure as it starts to impact many parts of our daily lives. No industry is untouched, with the potential applications of AI seemingly endless. We now have highly personalised retail, personal assistants we can chat to, self-driving cars (almost), ‘robo-lawyers’ and despondent grandmaster chess players.

AI is here and promises to create a future of limitless possibilities, including curing diseases, ending famine and delivering virtual experiences indistinguishable from reality. In terms of the here and now and the opportunities for businesses, AI can deliver large efficiencies in automating administrative and manual tasks, freeing up resources for more value adding and customer focussed tasks. There is also the opportunity to use AI and machine learning to process and interpret large data sets, providing analysis, insight and trends that would normally require a large number of people to arrive at.

“Human centred design is critical when developing any service, especially those powered by AI technology”

 

On the flipside, some warn of millions of people being put out of work and a world ruled by robots. So, how do business leaders navigate this landscape and what do organisations need to do when thinking about the why and how of AI? What can we learn from developments so far and what are the pitfalls to look out for?

To try and answer these questions SPARCK invited private and public-sector business leaders from across the South West to the Watershed Arts Centre in Bristol to listen, debate and take action on AI. We called the event ‘Me, Myself and AI‘ to emphasis the critical nature of developing AI services and products for real people.

Getting started with AI

The evening kicked off with a thought-provoking presentation looking at the huge impact AI is already having on growth and efficiency across most industries, providing insight into how to get started with AI and the key challenges for business. The event then moved on to a high energy ‘design thinking’ workshop run by the SPARCK digital team. Working in groups, the attendees were challenged to develop an AI-based product to help the NHS deliver better services, ensuring they designed to real user needs (we chose the NHS because it’s something we can all relate to).

The session was highly engaging with post-it notes and ideas on paper flying around everywhere, culminating in a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style pitch to the judging panel. Finally, a panel of experts from different sectors answered questions, providing their insight and perspective on the impact of AI in their different domains.

We purposely designed the event to be interactive in order to provide insight into the challenges business leaders face when designing digital products and services. As the evening progressed it became clear that human centred design is critical when developing any service, especially those powered by AI technology – we must design around real user pain points and needs if services are going to be useful and relevant. The panel discussion at the end also highlighted how overwhelming AI and related technology such as machine learning can be.

“The key is to start small, rapidly prototype and test quickly”

 

A challenge was emphasised when panel member Andy Callow of NHS Digital was asked how organisations without access to vast quantities of data can compete with global technology firms, such as Google. The insight from Andy was that the NHS is already using readily available ‘off the shelf’ machine learning and AI tools to apply at a small scale to develop new patient services. The key is to start small, rapidly prototype and test quickly with users to help refine the service or product.

Another challenge lies in finding the right talent to drive projects forward as IT teams will need to be augmented with skills such as algorithm development, machine learning and data science. The creation of digital assistants or chatbots, for example, is likely to require expertise from people with different backgrounds like behavioural science, user experience (UX) consultants and conversation designers. Companies will need to integrate these individuals into their business to build human-centric services that truly meet the needs of their customers.

We wanted the attendees of Me, Myself and AI to not only leave with insight into the potential of AI as a technology that can add real value to their business, but also practical tools and methods to ensure the products they design are customer centric. The overwhelming feedback was that this was achieved, proving our strong belief in the power of human centred design. It’s now up to business leaders to act quickly or get left behind and they should be working with experienced partners to understand the potential of AI to drive efficiencies and grow their businesses.