Real productivity: taking a human approach to artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) promises many benefits for medium to large businesses, and one of the most enticing is the prospect of improved productivity. But how do you unlock its potential and where do you begin?

This is a question Vodafone is working to answer in collaboration with Imperial College London. As long-standing partners, we’re familiar with working together to solve complex challenges, with DreamLab serving as a prime example. Built using AI, the specialist app used smartphone technology to autonomously conduct cancer and COVID-19 research.

Now we’ve joined forces with David Shrier – renowned American futurist, author and Professor of Practice, AI and Innovation at Imperial College Business School – to bring our customers insight on AI and productivity.

David’s latest book, ‘Basic AI: A Human Guide to Artificial Intelligence’ has been written to help readers understand how to succeed in the AI-enabled future. With this in mind, we asked David a number of questions around AI and its ability to enhance productivity. Here’s what he had to say:

Hi David. Please could you start by telling us what you believe AI and Gen AI will provide businesses as they continue to embrace this technology?

First and foremost, these technologies will deliver more transparency, visibility and control. Businesses will no longer be bottlenecked by technical functions when they come up with new ideas. They’ll simply be able to talk to their AI, which will produce the code, provide the answer to the problem, and quickly produce the outcomes they need.

It’s exciting and transformative – and it’s available today. But what’s even more exciting is what it can do for businesses tomorrow. AI holds the potential to unlock the collective intelligence of the organisation and make it more responsive. It has the ability to predict future results. And by combining it with human intelligence, the results can be incredibly significant.

That sounds transformative for businesses, but what challenges do they face when looking to embrace AI?

The biggest obstacle is actually not technological. It’s human. Specifically, human resistance to change. I'll give you two examples of what holds us back – both of them are cognitive biases:

The first is called algorithm aversion. This is when people refuse to trust AI decisions due to a mistaken belief that human judgement is superior. For example, statistically, if we had fully autonomous self-driving cars, we could eliminate 94% of traffic fatalities. We would save more than a million lives a year if we let the computers do the driving – but people feel uncomfortable with the notion of AI drivers and refuse to adopt the systems.

The second cognitive bias is change fatigue. Within the last six years, we've had two recessions, a pandemic, a cost of living crisis, a war, and an accelerated adoption of cloud to name but a few life-changing shifts. People are exhausted! Trying to give them an additional new idea to take on board, like AI, is therefore difficult.

So, how do you overcome the challenges and get businesses to see the benefits of AI adoption?

It all comes down to very basic management skills. Leaders simply need to communicate with their employees. They need to show people that they have an important role to play in this new future and that AI can make their lives better and easier. Managers must help them understand that an AI co-pilot can do the tedious tasks, enabling them to get more fulfilment out of their roles.

Of course, there also needs to be understanding at the board level. Business owners, CEOs and directors all need to realise what AI actually is capable of – and what it is not capable of. They need to truly understand the return on investment and develop their AI literacy. That will then build confidence to invest into change.

How do we successfully articulate the human role alongside AI?

There are certain things that AI is good at. But there are certain things that AI is not good at – which people excel in. We therefore want to focus our attention on human skills such as creativity, teamwork and anything requiring emotional intelligence.

For instance, several years ago, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studied teamwork. They conducted group activity and it found that the best performing team was not the one that had the single smartest person on it – nor was it the team that had the best average IQ. The best was the one with the highest average emotional intelligence.

“We need to communicate the importance of machines doing the boring, quantitative drudgery – and let people drive businesses forward by using their innately human abilities.”

So, when it comes to improving a business’s productivity levels, where do we start?

I believe businesses have the potential to realise around 60% productivity improvement from efficiencies – and around 40% from new revenue growth. Efficiency is a hugely under exploited area and AI can certainly help.

But first we need to recognise that, just as there are many different kinds of human intelligence, there are also dozens of types of AI. So, a business must start by looking at what kinds of AI are most relevant to their needs, and which ones do a better job that humans.

Remember, no one does maths in their head to run a major corporation anymore; we use calculators, spreadsheets and financial software. We therefore need to dive into the analytics and find the best, most logical use for AI – and free up capacity to unlock our uniquely human abilities.

How many different types of AI are there exactly, and can they be categorised?

At a very high level, there are expert systems, which are based on rules. There are machine learning systems, where you pour data in and it can extract insights without you having to programme it. And there are deep learning systems that are much more powerful than machine learning systems. These are the ones that Generative AI is built on.

Take for example, ChatGPT. That isn’t just one AI – it comprises multiple models that work together as one. For this reason, policymakers are now starting to apply a risk based approach to it. The EU has the AI Act; the US has an executive order; and the UK is assessing the situation too.

A risk-based approach helps to divide up AI systems and tier their importance. After all, an AI-powered video game character that's smarter and more challenging to compete against probably wouldn’t need regulating. Whereas the AI systems that control the deployment of weapons-based drones would need to be very tightly controlled.

From a digital transformation strategy point of view, do you have any advice on what a business should focus on first?

To begin with, businesses need to get better educated about AI. This should start by running a diagnostic because some companies are already using AI and don’t even realise it! Many employees are using ChatGPT, Gemini and other generative AI in their day-to-day jobs, which is outside of corporate policy – and it can have serious implications.

Next, you need to build an AI strategy and improve your AI capabilities. There's a lot of free education available to understand how to do things like prompt engineering, which enables you to get better answers to the questions you pose to AI.

After this, the next priority is to understand your intellectual property. Do you know if your employees are inputting sensitive client data into ChatGPT? Perhaps you need your own segregated chat system or to create governance around how you interact with AI.

Finally, once you've done all these things, you've set the stage to build an AI growth engine that can actually deliver transformational outcomes – not just incremental growth. If you use AI properly, you can improve productivity by at least 30%, which all drops to the bottom line. And that's only the beginning.

A final word from Miryem Salah, Chief Data Officer and Head of Digital & Transformation, Vodafone Business:

“It’s a real privilege to work with Imperial College London and Professor David Shrier who is a true visionary and leader in his field. David’s insight into the potential of AI to help businesses improve productivity ties in neatly with the solutions we offer to drive digital transformation for our customers and increase operational efficiency, boost growth and extend competitive advantage. This underlines our goal of being the trusted digital partner to UK businesses.

“We understand the important role that AI plays in helping with those tasks a business needs to undertake, where speed and volume of output exceed human capability.”

Ready to power up productivity in your business? Contact Vodafone Business today.

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