Questions to Luis Alvarez, CEO BT Global Services
Mr Alvarez, in the discussions going on in Davos, “Artificial Intelligence” is mentioned pretty often, much more than last year. What has changed during the past twelve months?
I think although AI has been around for decades, it was a rather abstract expression for most people. In the past few months we have seen services based on AI emerging that are available to virtually everyone, and that has given developments in the field a new boost. For example, a “cognitive computing system” available in the cloud has become widely available – and that is just one example. The concept of AI is also making inroads into our everyday life. What is changing is the availability of lower cost and cloud solutions which make AI a more suitable capability for our businesses.
Looking at real life examples: Where can we find AI in our day-to-day lives?
Many of our customers, as well as other Internet users, benefit from the machine learning capabilities of our security systems every day. Our “Threat Intelligence” systems can detect new and so far unknown cyber threats and protect the networks and IT systems of many companies – however for most people, this happens unnoticed. Most recently AI has started moving into the households and gets more relevant (and visible) in our everyday lives. From Apple’s Siri to Amazon’s Echo, we are now using systems that can learn to understand and interpret our voices, know our habits and predict buying preferences. Over the coming years, this is definitely the space to watch. Contact Centre services are another relevant area where specific tasks can be performed by “robots” helping human agents.
What development can we expect in the next 3-5 years?
AI is expected to evolve significantly beyond today’s relatively simple machine learning to better understand human behaviour. That means robots making decisions on their own in more complicated situations. And as they get cleverer, they would be able to take on increasingly challenging jobs, helping free the human worker up to be more productive. I personally believe in the usage based on executing tasks and learning how to do it better and better. It will relief us from those tasks giving us more time for valuable work or great fun.
And how should “traditional” companies react to this development?
I think every company should ask the question where AI could help them improve their business. Successful organisations are looking at using AI to support customer service first. Enabling deeper and richer interactions with end customers is an area where AI can add real value.The future of increased productivity and business success isn’t either human or machine – It’s both. Technology can help humans work better, smarter, and faster. It can help us as leaders rethink how people engage with their jobs and how we can facilitate seamless collaboration.
At BT all our customers are embracing this in one way or another. We are working with them combining it with high volumes of information (Big Data) and a growing number of connected devices (the internet of things).
Where will AI lead us in the long run?
In my view, we should embrace artificial intelligent systems as our co-workers. In particular it will help to automate the repetitive tasks, freeing us up to be more productive. As a result, we will have more time to learn new things, and collaborate better with others. Digitalisation will create new jobs that require new skills, not only in the IT industry but because new business models will emerge that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.
Do you think we – as humans – have already found the right ethical answers to the changes and challenges AI might bring?
I think that AI, like other aspects of digitalisation, brings opportunities and risks, as any new technology. It’s not good or bad, it’s the way you use it – how it generates the right or wrong effect. I think the key is: We need transparency, and we need to give people choice. We need to allow each individual to have the right to decide to which level they would like to use a certain technology, and we need to make sure we don’t have processes or algorithms deciding things we don’t want them to decide.
And finally: does AI have the potential to replace leaders – like you – in the long run?
There are some distinct advantages to having a robot as your company’s CEO. Firstly, they might be able to make better, more responsible, decisions. Background ‘noise’ can hugely affect the decision making process. If I’ve had a bad meeting, am suffering jet lag or simply have other things on my mind, my decision making could be impacted. Robots don’t face the unpredictabilities we humans face, so their decisions are more likely to be consistent, based on facts. But – there are some obvious areas where the skills a senior leader has built up over their career will put them at the advantage from their robotic competition. For example, a CEO’s ability for critical thinking and creativity, the ability to think beyond an algorithm. In my view, we should embrace artificial intelligent systems as our co-workers and invite them into our boardrooms. Emotions, intuitions, experience always add extremely valuable elements to our decisions which are challenging to be replicated with AI today. This is the personal touch we bring to our people and to our customers. Automating tasks and even decision making could not only make me more productive, responsive and even responsible, but it could also free me up to do more rewarding work – to meet with customers and employees. And that’s because there is one thing we’re in danger of overlooking – the impact on our employees on having a robot in charge. As leaders, we need to engage, motivate and inspire our teams, especially in times of uncertainty. Can a robot energise its followers and improve the state of the world? Maybe one day, but not yet.