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Artificial Intelligence in NZ: What time are the robots taking over?

Employers
Robot takeover or helpful AI

Now that winter is well and truly here, and with my wife and I having a newborn baby daughter and two-year-old son to wrangle, quality time with our Netflix account is about all the evening entertainment we can manage. Do you ever feel amazed as I do, with the spot-on recommendations that Netflix provides?

Only a few years ago viewing recommendations were based purely on TV critic ratings, but now that list intuitively provides exactly what we didn’t know we were looking for. This is all thanks to Netflix’s personalisation algorithm; a great example of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in use in our everyday lives. Although it may sound like it, AI is not Hollywood-style, futuristic talking robots. It’s technology that is here and now, integrating into our daily lives. Yet I don’t think there is a huge amount of discussion taking place about the impact of AI in our society, and in our businesses. AI is here to stay, with vast potential for NZ to use and benefit from, if we are ready.

What is AI?

AI has actually been around for about 50 years but as our technological knowledge and prowess have advanced, it’s become more sophisticated, readily available and is set to disrupt life as we know it in coming years. You can think of AI simply as ‘smart machines’, but a definition I find helpful is one provided by the NZ AI forum: ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) is advanced digital technologies that enable machines to reproduce or surpass abilities that would require intelligence if humans were to perform them’. So, we’re talking technologies that enable machines to learn and adapt, to sense and interact, to reason and plan, to optimise processes or to extract useful knowledge from large amounts of data. This may sound futuristic but the reality is that AI is already permeating our lives. When Netflix recommends your next show, Siri answers your question, if you get your skin checked using MoleMap or when Google maps adjusts your route because of traffic ahead—you are using AI. This technology is expected to become as ubiquitous in our future lives as smart phones are now.

Economic impacts

Predictions state that there is potential for AI to drive huge economic benefits across most sectors. It will be big business; a calculation by Accenture estimates that by 2035, AI will add an additional US$15.7 trillion to the global economy. Significant benefit will come from improved human productivity, because in theory, as AI driven systems take over labour inputs, humans can then spend time on other productive tasks. Where a sector has a large labour force and high use of technology, there is predicted to be a higher benefit, for example, within financial services. The technology sector, manufacturing and education are also tipped to rapidly enjoy significant benefits from AI adoption. Benefits also arise from more efficient development of products and services as well as increased consumer demand. AI will revolutionise how businesses compete and grow.

AI & the job market

Contrary to the popular perception, research shows that rapidly advancing technology does not in fact accelerate job losses. While more routine tasks may be prone to automation, non-routine tasks and roles will continue, and it’s highly likely that AI will in fact create additional jobs, in two main ways: 1) directly in the AI producing sector as people are required to create, maintain and improve AI technologies; 2) indirectly in the other sectors, for example in the way humans assist at automated airport check-in and supermarket checkouts. Because AI adoption will take time, in the same way it took broadband internet a span of 13 years (from 2003 to 2016) to reach mass adoption here in New Zealand (NZ), most predictions are that we will not experience large job losses as a result of AI adoption, but instead there will be a steady shift in the way that people work.

The case in NZ

We are faced with a challenge here in NZ. Canada, China, France, Singapore, South Korea, UAE and UK have all developed multi-million dollar national AI investment strategies. Many NZ businesses are doing work in the AI sector, and many more such as ourselves are interested in thinking about, discussing and preparing for the opportunities that AI presents. However, there is yet to be a cohesive strategy or plan for how AI could become integrated into New Zealand society. AI will disrupt every industry over the next few years, and no business will be immune from technological advancements. Yet as you can imagine there are myriad practical, legal and ethical questions that need to be addressed, all of which will take time, money and the attention of plenty of smart minds. We need to do more to get ready.

Getting ready

There’s preparation to be done at every level of society, from the way we are teaching primary school kids to creating better discussions about AI at Board level, but I want to start with a manageable action. It’s been stated that one of the primary drivers for the uptake of AI in NZ will be the desire to make sense of the vast amounts of data produced daily, as organisations create, share and place value on data every day. Therefore, I believe the first step we can take is to ensure we are curious about AI, and ask how within our own businesses, AI may help resolve data issues, or complete data–related tasks faster. This is one approach that we at Madison are taking.

Historically, NZ has been an early tech adopter, with international firms seeing us as a good early test market. Our small size is an advantage because we are able to more easily connect government, industry and not-for-profits together in our problem solving. It makes sense to leverage this advantage to build our readiness; we can do this by ensuring that AI adoption becomes a regular talking point within our organisations but also at industry level. After all, how we choose to use AI throughout our society and in our businesses, will impact how NZ progresses as a nation.

 

This is a vast and fascinating topic, and I’d recommend a read of the AI Forum’s recent report ‘Artificial Intelligence: Shaping a Future New Zealand’ from where I sourced material for this post. This report provides a very helpful overview of the AI climate here in NZ. There are potentially huge implications for our employment market which I think will be worthwhile discussing in more depth in a future blog post, so watch this space for more on this topic—and if you have any specific thoughts or questions you’d like to see covered, feel free to send me an email at christian.brown@madison.co.nz.