Artificial Intelligence (AI) already powers many of our daily interactions. In the same way that electricity transformed every industry more than a hundred years ago, AI is set to have a similar impact.
Recently, the AI Forum hosted panel discussions in Auckland and Wellington to explore what can be done to increase AI adoption in business and Government.
(1) Create better awareness
While debate continues about the exact impact, experts agree, AI is going to play a large role in shaping the future. Exponential growth is predicted in the coming decades.
“Many uses of AI will not be a matter of choice, in the same way we have adopted smartphones or the automobile. AI is one of those things that you will adopt, primarily, because it’s useful to you,” says Xero’s Head of AI, Christopher Laing. However, creating AI focused export companies is the greater opportunity he suggests.
Meanwhile, local businesses and organisations need to improve their overall AI readiness.
“In New Zealand organisations everyone is talking about it, almost everybody wants to do it. Everybody thinks the other person is doing it. But no, nobody’s doing it well, right now,” says IAG’s Head of Data Analytics and AI Ratneesh Suri. Compared to international companies like Netflix who are first to realise the value and gain a return, many local companies are lacking urgency.
“AI readiness is certainly lacking, or if it’s considered by executive teams, they may be looking two, five or 10 years ahead. Because of this, the rest of the organisational readiness is missing too. The data isn’t ready, because they need to invest in it, the tools and infrastructure isn’t ready, or the capability and culture too,” she explains. To help adjust the mindset, she says that businesses need evangelists to champion the benefits of AI.
Air New Zealand’s Senior Manager of Data Analytics Paulo Gottgtroy adds that New Zealand needs to focus on transforming AI into business value.
“We need a real methodology to make sure businesses are doing the right things, at the right time.”
In business planning, Auckland University Professor Michael Witbrock cautions against relying on forecasts and predictions.
“Instead, what we should concentrate on is the trajectory, how can we drive ourselves along good trajectories as rapidly as possible? We don’t know exactly when we’re going to need these systems to be good, but we need to be prepared.
“Do not set New Zealand organisations against each other when they are doing tactical things for New Zealand, we simply can’t afford to do that. Likewise, let’s not compete across universities, with respect to investments,” he says, calling for a coordinated national approach to AI research.
(2) Use trusted data
AI has been in existence for decades, but the recent hype is due to the availability of large datasets, increased computer processing power and improved machine learning algorithms that anyone can use. This allows complex problems to be solved, more quickly and at a lower cost.
Data is a key ingredient for AI and trusted data is a critical enabler. Well prepared, well managed and well governed data is essential. We asked our panel if New Zealand is hitting the mark?
“Data is a strategic asset. There are different models and frameworks emerging, like data trusts for example. It is important to find solutions to people’s genuine concerns in terms of sharing this data,” says Stats NZ Deputy Chief Executive ’s Rachael Milicich. MBIE’s data sets are publicly accessible. Last year’s Algorithm Assessment Report provided valuable insights, she says, with many Government departments seeing potential for AI.
(3) Develop talent and capability
Our speakers discussed a range of initiatives to increase skill levels and talent availability. This included issues of talent demand and supply.
“New Zealand also needs to actively recruit the best AI talent we can,” says Michael Witbrock.
Another key challenge is sharing knowledge and awareness of opportunities. Panellists agreed there is a need to bridge the gap between technical expertise and commercialisation.
Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Michael Winikoff shared suggestions for developing skills included:
– a role for local learning hubs or centres
– a role for education and training opportunities
– a role for academic and industry partnerships (industrial research labs).
Also in Wellington, Prof. Mengjie Zhang detailed the current work by Victoria University of Wellington’s interdisciplinary AI and Evolutionary Computation Research Group.
We asked our discussion panel if New Zealand organisations have the capability to use AI successfully?
“Absolutely not ready! It’s definitely a concern because we get so wrapped up in the big debates, but at the same time we aren’t laying the important foundations,” says Emma Naji of AI Advisory in Wellington.
“All businesses need to health check their data and focus on the basics, which won’t ever be a waste of time in the future, no matter which direction a business takes. As it stands, for many businesses, these basics aren’t being done and this means businesses simply aren’t ready.”
Certainly, technology businesses like Xero who exist on a culture of innovation are fundamentally using technology to solve problems – but not every domestic business is in that position.
(4) Create an impact
In New Zealand, despite having no national AI strategy, we still have the potential to create an impact. Discussion in both Wellington and Auckland highlighted positive uses for AI to help solve the world’s problems including environmental, humanitarian and health issues.
“I would say that AI and molecular biology, are likely to be the two most important technologies, not just economically, but for the future of human civilisation, so we better have some part to play in that,” says Michael Witbrock, adding that historically, New Zealand has excelled in contributing to the wellbeing of human civilisation – for example, New Zealand was the first country to implement a national minimum wage.