10 July 2017 Interview

David Stokes, IBM: how AI delivers competitive advantage for UK business

David Stokes, chief operating officer of IBM Europe, talks about how businesses, whatever their size or sector, can use AI to augment the relationship between humans and machines, and what this means for the UK economy

The topic of AI is rapidly gathering momentum among businesses, government and the media. Is this a trend that you have observed when you’ve talked to those driving innovation on the ground. Why is now is such a crucial time?

The concept of AI has been around for many years, but we’re now at a tipping point at which this technology is moving into the mainstream thinking of organisations.

There are two underlying trends. The first is technological – with the availability of high-performance computing over the cloud, advanced analytics and a plentiful supply of data to feed into the cloud. All those things help make AI a practical reality. 

The second is perhaps more fundamental. There’s a realisation that organisations can only improve their performance so far through the traditional ways of doing business

The internet has helped drive a step change in the speed and reach of information and therefore has helped productivity, but it’s largely done so in the context of existing business processes. It’s sped up the things we’ve already done things for decades.

How is AI transformative?  

AI brings a new level of intelligence that can change the nature of how businesses operate and how we work and live our lives. Our study with the CBI shows that approximately 20 per cent of British firms have already deployed practical applications of AI.

The concept of AI has been around for many years, but we’re now at a tipping point

The real opportunities lie in smarter automation of a whole range of business processes and that can be from the supply chain through to transport logistics and asset management.

There’s a third area, which is the big prize is for business – the application of AI to innovation and discovery. The winners from this new era (IBM has termed it the Cognitive Era) will be those that look at AI as something to be infused throughout the business, starting with strategy and business models.

For any IT novices among our readers, could you please describe the term AI?

It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in buzzwords and technical nuances. If you think about the computing model we’ve all worked with over decades, it’s largely been programmed and operates using data that needs to be well structured and defined. 

Now it’s fair to say that our technology has become much more intuitive and more engaging, but even the smartphones we all have in our pockets, as powerful and intuitive as they are, are still programmed.

AI (or cognitive computing) learns and becomes more intelligent over time and can operate on data that is structured or unstructured. It understands human language, then reasons and in a way that mimics the way humans reason and then learns to become smarter over time. These are all things humans can do, but it does it at a scale that no single human being can manage.

Isn’t one of the issues holding back AI that people fear that it will displace many jobs?

AI creates a new level of collaboration between man and machine, which is about augmenting and expanding human intelligence, rather than replacing it. In short its man and machine working together.

With the introduction of any new technology, there will be an impact on what we do and what we value in the workforce. You can go back to the industrial revolution to see examples of where that has been the case.

AI provides better insights, makes better decisions and solves problems we consider unsolvable. People sometimes forget AI is trained by humans to learn and understand knowledge.

The technology industry, and business in general, has a role to play in building confidence and trust in AI, and helping overcome some of these misunderstandings.

It appears there is potentially a skills gap in UK business when it comes to AI? How can businesses work with the education sector to address this skills shortage and fashion a new workplace equipped to deal with the shifting demands of industry?

There are two parts to the skills gap and we need to address these in parallel. We need more data scientists, including those who specialise in industry verticals. We have a great base in this country through some of the work universities have done and we could rightly claim to be one of the world leaders.

AI creates a new level of collaboration between man and machine, which is about augmenting and expanding human intelligence, rather than replacing it.

We will need specific programmes to continue to attract bright talent into this field and to create the right environment for start-ups to become scale-ups.

The second more profound skills gap is about building a workforce across all professions that is confident and able to work with AI. People need to learn the art of continuous learning to build new skills as part of lifelong learning. This becomes really important in a world in which intelligence is more available to us. We also need to teach people how to work with technology (and particularly cognitive technologies) to solve problems.

We need to prepare the next generation for a very different way of working and business is very much part of the solution. We need to look at developing the next generation of talent and helping the workforce learn the relevant skills for new collar jobs that set in motion the much-needed progress towards embracing this new technological era.

We’re doing something interesting in the US in which we’ve led a transformation of high school education called PTech. Students are graduating at 18 with a high school diploma and an associate degree in engineering or computer systems technology, which gives them the professional skills to work in these new jobs. We’re introducing this model into Australia and starting to work with education stakeholders to look at that model in the 11-18 secondary school system. I believe that the P-TECH school model must also be part of the solution for addressing the skills gap in the UK too, which is why IBM is currently working with education stakeholders to adapt the model to fit the UK’s 11-18 secondary school system.

When we hear the term ‘AI’, we think of larger companies and fintechs, but why should smaller companies and those not necessarily in the traditionally technical sectors be engaged and excited about AI?

AI is evolving in a way that is making it easily accessible to get started and then to scale. If you think about technology, there have historically been large barriers to entry such as capital investments and significant investment in skills. This is no longer the case.

There’s a fair point around industries and some industries have been much quicker to adopt the technology, which can be is directly linked to the competitiveness of those sectors. There’s been a compelling need to use artificial intelligence and other technologies to get a competitive advantage, and small companies clearly have the advantage of being able to move quicker.

No matter whether you’re a small or a large business and whichever sector you’re in, there is still a need to automate in smarter ways, serve your customers more personally and innovate better than your competitors. All companies are sitting on what I call an ‘untapped natural resource of data’, which is waiting to be refined and used for competitive advantage.

Do you have any predictions on how AI will alter the face of business in the next two, five, 10 or 50 years?

Initially, we’re going to see a rapid, almost exponential take-up, in early adoption rates. Across the five or 10-year view, we’ll see cognitive technologies being introduced widely in the business to the point at which most decisions will, in some way, be informed by a cognitive system or AI. 

I am very optimistic about the world that we will create using artificial intelligence so I see a world in which the way we work and the way we live our lives will be for the better.

There tends to be a view that technology creates a divide and I don't think this is the case. The key will be making sure that the education system gives everybody the opportunity to leverage the opportunity in front of them.

How do you see AI impacting the UK economy more broadly?

AI is a tremendous opportunity for the UK to be a world leader and one can argue the timing for that could not be better, asnd we all know that over the next couple of years, leaving the European Union will dominate the agenda for this country.

No matter whether you’re a small or a large business and whichever sector you’re in, there is still a need to automate in smarter ways

We need to create the right incentives for business and government to scale adoption because we’re sometimes very good at getting started, but we don't then take it into mainstream scale. We also need to create policies that build both trust and transparency in how AI is being used in our world. All of these things are a recipe for Britain to be a world leader in artificial intelligence.

We do have some early momentum. We have the adoption rates and we have some world-class companies already working in AI and we have the basis of an education system that can build that foundation for global leadership.

On a personal note, what was it that attracted you to the IBM role? Have you always had a fascination with technology?

I’ve always been motivated by the opportunity to solve difficult problems to make a difference for the better in how the world works.

IBM has given afforded me this opportunity through the brand, the technology itself and our global reach … but most of all, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented and committed people in the industry – not  just those in IBM but our clients and our partners as well.

IBM’s three principles of AI

Purpose – the purpose of AI is to aid humans, not replace them ‘cognitive’ will augment and extend what humans do and not replace them

Transparency – when building AI platforms be clear how they were trained and what data was used tell people not just when AI is being used, but who has trained these AI platforms

Building the right talent – we need to play proactive role in the skills agenda 

Skills - companies must play a proactive role in building the right talent for the new jobs that will emerge in the cognitive era.

How businesses throughout the UK are adopting AI

Arthritis Research UK: Developing an IBM Watson-powered virtual personal assistant to provide information and advice to people living with arthritis 
AXA and rradar: Offering legal advice through machine learning
Alder Hey Children’s Hospital: Harnessing ‘big data’ and the power of IBM’s Watson technology platform to improve the experience for patients


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