“Whether you like it or not, Artificial Intelligence is coming,” Rory Moore, director and innovation lead for Accenture, told a Gordon Institute of Business Science forum.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is expected to fundamentally challenge strategic competitiveness across industries and threatens mass job losses globally as automation becomes widely adopted.
AI consists of machines or computer programmes that are able to engage in visual perception, speech recognition and intelligent decision-making, Arthur Goldstuck explained.
The tech writer, analyst and commentator said AI “accelerates decision making in unimaginable ways.”
While AI is nothing new, Sappi chief information officer Bradley Coward said the pace of implementation has increased significantly over the past three years.
“AI is not new. What is new is the computational power.”
While we are not yet at the point of autonomous AI being able to take make judgment calls, reach a decision and then act on that decision, we are not far off from that point Coward said.
Chief strategy officer at Openserve, Pushkar Gokhale said artificial intelligence shouldn’t be about “man versus machine, but rather man with machine, against the challenge”.
He warned against fear mongering: The fear of joblessness needs to be stopped, or it would create hurdles for good technology, which would then fall by the wayside.
AI applications for consumers and business
Goldstuck explained that AI ranged from consumer applications on mobile devices, such as Apple’s Siri or Samsung’s Bixby, to Amazon’s Echo device Alexa. Within two years applications such as these would be mainstream in all smart phones.
Business applications like IBM’s Watson intelligent computer system or algorithms were becoming widespread across industries.
Goldstuck said algorithms were used by banks to make trading decisions and had meant trading floors now employed a tenth of the people they used to.
“In future, banks will have a chief AI officer to look after all algorithms,” Goldstuck added.
Coward said digitisation had been a “terrible blow” for the paper industry, which had been forced to reinvent itself as a result.
“Digitisation is a very long journey for any organisation, of which artificial intelligence is one step,” he explained.
One of the ways the industry had transformed was through the introduction of smart packaging and building intelligence into packaging at a Nano level.
Coward advised businesses to develop an appreciation and understanding of what artificial intelligence could do to their industry and how it could be integrated, regardless of their sector.
“AI should be a fundamental part of your strategy because it is a top-down approach. If your chief executive doesn’t understand AI and digitisation, you are lost,” Coward said.
As a result, chief information officers were being promoted to the position of chief executive in some industries such as logistics, he said.
AI, education and fears of joblessness
While artificial intelligence is able to improve productivity, it also results in widespread job losses. Ethical considerations around the application of the technology and how to balance productivity and employment exist.
Fears that AI could become so intelligent as to take over from human decision making plays to people’s fears of progress and that robots would take over the world, Goldstuck said.
However, “it is not AI that we should be scared of, but the corporate bosses who will decide what the technology will do,” he argued.
“There isn’t a strong ethical foundation and they have now been handed this powerful tool.”
While job losses are a concern, Coward said it is human attitude and culture that has to change: “More entrepreneurs are being developed due to AI because they can see its new opportunities,” he said.
Gokhale argued that artificial intelligence and technology had become the fastest growing employment sector in the United States over the past decade.
While some traditional jobs may become more automated, there would still retain a human element, he said.
“This fear of job loss has to be curtailed or the adoption of the technologies will be hampered. Is about educating people how to harness the technology and how upskill them.”
Job losses through automation were already present in some industries, but it had increased employment in others, such as automotive manufacturing, where humans were required to control and manage robots.
“We must upskill people and focus on the industries where we can use AI to create jobs,” he added.
AI in South Africa
Pushkar said developing nations had a potential advantage in that they could leverage AI to leapfrog.
“The technology could make a massive difference in developing nations if used properly.”
South Africa was well placed on the African continent and should harness its advantages such as its infrastructure, universities and schools.
“South Africa and the rest of the continent should look inwards and find what differentiates us in the global economy.
"The solutions to bridge the digital divide do not have to be high tech, but rather simple, innovative and small digitised products that people will need and will change their quality of life.
"Small, incremental changes will change South Africa,” he concluded.