Artificial Intelligence in the Boardroom – Should We Be Scared or Excited?

The New Year’s Honours list is a great British tradition. Some cynics argue it spices up a slow news week between Christmas and 1 January. I, for one, see it as the confirmation of major social and business trends, through their institutionalisation.

Which is why I was fascinated to see Demis Hassabis, chief executive of DeepMind, the AI-focused Google unit behind Alpha Go and Alpha Go Zero, made Commander of the British empire this year. (Spoiler alert: there is not much left of that empire, as even the Daily Telegraph admitted at the end of 2017).

Through Demis, it is artificial intelligence that is recognised – both its staggering penetration of our modern society to date and its future potential to change our lives.

AI gets a lot of coverage – some good, such as the recent report from the World Economic Forum on Europe’s leading role in robotics. Some is bad as exemplified by the incredibly realistic – although fictional – video on killer robots and the less impactful, but equally disturbing, brain drain reported by universities unable to retain AI scientists lured by private sector companies.

The impact of AI on jobs has been widely covered, including by myself on Business Value Exchange as well as other publications. So yes, taxi and truck drivers, customer service representatives, restaurant waiters, and then teachers, tax experts (particularly in Australia it seems), airline pilots, lawyers, and surgeons are at risk and could be gone one day. In fact, the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute believes all jobs will be fully automated in the next 120 years.

But what is only just starting to be understood is how AI can help the most senior executives in large organisations. An article in the MIT Sloan Management Review by Barry Libert, Megan Beck, and Mark Bonchek in October 2017 posited that AI could help CEOs and their senior teams if they let it. At a recent ITSMA event hosted by Bloomberg in London before Christmas, Julie Woods-Moss, Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer for Tata Communications, gave a perfect example of how this might happen.

Over a five-year period, Julie and her team have created a deep learning-enabled bot that provides real-time insight on over a thousand companies – these can be customers, partners or competitors of Tata. The AI agent is coupled with an automated dashboard to facilitate the consumption of the knowledge provided. This has helped the company direct its sales efforts towards specific target clients, generating 500 new business leads in 2017 alone and supporting 10 product launches.

Imagine a company board meeting where the senior team can finesse its decisions in real-time by consulting an AI agent in order to:

  • improve sales success and accelerate product launches,
  • reduce legal and regulatory risk,
  • pinpoint M&A targets accurately.

Not just once, but every time the board gets together.

Which investor would not want this AI tool to be in place in the business they have a stake in?

Dr Paul Fifield, of Southampton Business School, pointed at a recent event held by the Association for Strategic Planning about the risks from misguided use of data. Without context, experience and interpretation, one could be fooled into believing an aversion to sushi and to same-sex marriage are correlated. Or, even more outlandishly, that there is a causal link between US cheese consumption and death from getting tangled in one’s bed sheets.

For the moment then, the AI bot requires the help of experienced business people to make sense of data. But, given Alpha Go Zero taught itself the game of Go and reached the world’s top level in just 40 days, this may not last long.

So what of the Queen’s Honours list and AI? I’d like to predict two milestones:

  • In 2020, the submissions will be reviewed by an AI agent, rather than diligent civil servants in the Cabinet Office.
  • In 2040, an AI agent will receive an honour, possibly for services to patient care or cancer research.

Vincent Rousselet

Author: Vincent Rousselet

Vincent is founder and MD of V Rousselet & Associates. With more than 20 years of strategic and operational marketing experience, predominantly in IT and telecommunications, he is an experienced global marketer and strategist who has worked with some of the world’s most recognizable organizations and brands in Europe, America and Asia. Vincent is passionate about customers, who must be at the heart of strategy and transformation.