What are the pros and cons of AI?

We weigh up the benefits and the negatives of the technology that's changing business

Artificial intelligence (AI) was once long-dubbed a technology for the future, with fears surrounding it overtaking human labour and Hollywood dystopias running rife. It’s now a technology for the present but also for the future still, with its full set of capabilities yet to materialise.

Indeed, it’s still a somewhat immature technology in its current form with plenty of room for future development and innovation, despite being hugely advanced in the grand scheme of things. AI is now all around us, in various forms. Smart home assistants are driven by AI - a common example of AI existing in the consumer space - but industrial applications are also nearly as ubiquitous.

The way businesses are deploying AI has been both controversial at times and remarkably impressive - much more so than the consumer-focused capabilities of the AI in your Amazon Alexa or Google Nest at home, for example.

AI use cases

Moving further up the use scale, we have standout names like Watson and AlphaGo. These are systems that have already proven they can roundly beat even the most accomplished human competitors, with a poker-playing AI being the most recent example, beating five professional players at once.

While these types of feats may capture the attention of newspaper headlines, the majority of AI use today is still quietly busying away in the background unseen.

Akin to the voice assistant examples above, if you use Google's Gmail email service, you may notice that it will now show the text as you're typing. Replying to an email from Sarah, it will suggest her name as soon as you've typed "Hi" or got partway through "Hello". It will offer other suggestions (such as "are you?" if you start typing "How" in the first sentence or two) as you go along and change them on the fly as you're typing out sentences.

One key use case of AI is mining data to help businesses, NGOs, governments, and others make informed decisions on everything from strategy to product development, and to do so much more quickly than ever possible before.

But that's just scratching the surface of AI's potential. Indeed, it's being used in myriad sectors and scenarios, many of which we detail below.

Like all technologies, however, it's not a neutral force there's the potential for negative outcomes and benefits in equal measure. Tesla founder Elon Musk famously believes AI is an existential threat to humans, as did the late theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

So is AI a force for good? Or is it something we should be inherently distrustful of?

The pros of AI

AI is going to proliferate over the next few years and likely beyond that, too. The applications of the tech are far too impressive, efficient, and cost-effective for businesses to ignore which means the amount of AI we interact with daily will increase in all areas of life. What’s more, it’s becoming safer. Algorithmic biases are still problematic, for example, but innovative work is being done to make AI better for everyone.

Improved efficiency

Data is now as important to business as oil once was and there is a necessity to process this data accurately and quickly for real-time results. A great example of this type of artificial intelligence is being utilised by DeepMind to diagnose sight-threatening eye conditions on the same level of accuracy as the world's top clinicians.

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Alongside UCL's Institute of Ophthalmology and London-based Moorfields Eye Hospital, their research could lead the way for the rollout of AI systems in hospitals throughout the UK. Thanks to the AI system, doctors can spend less time studying thousands of eye scans and can help diagnose patients within seconds.

Eradicating human error

Even the best of us are prone to errors, whether it's a lapse in concentration or a simple mistake. However, an artificially intelligent machine built to carry out a specific task does not display these idiosyncrasies.

Online supermarket Ocado employs automated machines in its warehouse, where it controls thousands of robots, communicating with them 10 times a second to coordinate the logistics of hundreds of thousands of crates. However, it's also worth noting that the system isn't completely faultless: in July 2021, the online grocery retailer was forced to cancel thousands of orders after robots collided at one of its fulfilment centres and caused a fire

Smart technology

Similar to Ocado, AI will be utilised in the future to power many of our automated services. These could be smart cities that are predicted to improve our environments, or self-driving cars that use AI to navigate roads and assess obstructions.

An AI machine's ability to process large data sets quickly and accurately will be vital for many smart technologies and environments to operate. An example of this is already in operation on many top-range smartphones, where AI operates in the background constantly tweaking the phone's settings for maximum performance or battery life.

The cons of AI

It’s natural to be fearful of powerful technology. Recent history with data scandals, malware, and social media have evidenced that. AI is no different and many of the concerns held by onlookers are, in some areas, justified. But that doesn’t mean great work isn’t being done to mitigate the drawbacks.

In 2016, an industry-wide organisation including five Silicon Valley giants was formed, known as the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society. This body works to promote the fair and ethical development of artificial intelligence technologies that have the potential to bring as much disruption as it will benefit.

Decision-making AI in the workplace

The speed and efficiency of certain AI applications make them appealing to executives looking to find more value across their organisation.

IBM's Watson has been used to decide if employees are worthy of a pay rise, a bonus, or a promotion by looking at the experience and past projects of employees to judge the qualities and skills that individuals might provide to the company in the future.

Decision-making software used in this way has caused some concern. The Trades Union Congress, the federation that represents the majority of trade unions in the UK, recently called for legislative changes to safeguard employees against this kind of technology. It is also recommended that employers consult trade unions before deploying such systems.

"Our prediction is that left unchecked, the use of AI to manage people will also lead to work becoming an increasingly lonely and isolating experience, where the joy of human connection is lost," TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said.

Job losses

AI replacing human workers is widely regarded as the number one downside to AI, potentially resulting in widespread lay-offs as employees struggle to outperform machines. 

However, while this doom and gloom scenario is often peddled, Gartner predicts that AI will create more jobs than it takes. In research published in 2017, the analyst said it expects AI to create 2.3 million jobs by 2020, and eliminate a further 1.8 million. 

"Many significant innovations in the past have been associated with a transition period of temporary job loss, followed by recovery, then business transformation and AI will likely follow this route," said Svetlana Sicular, a Gartner research vice president.

"Unfortunately, most calamitous warnings of job losses confuse AI with automation - that overshadows the greatest AI benefit - AI augmentation - a combination of human and artificial intelligence, where both complement each other."

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A 2018 report from PwC also argued that AI will create just as many jobs as it culls, with the claim being echoed again in October 2020 by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In its Future of Jobs Report, the NGO stated that, although the pandemic has accelerated the automation of many repetitive and dangerous tasks, AI will lead to long-term job growth. By 2025, an estimated 85 million jobs will be displaced, giving way to 97 million new jobs across 26 countries.

WEF also predicted that, in the next four years, “half of all workers will require some upskilling or reskilling to prepare for changing and new jobs”. One area of skills worth developing in time for the AI-based future is data, but soft skills shouldn’t be ignored either. John Whittingdale OBE, Minister of State for Media and Data, described soft skills as “hugely important”, adding that, “without them, there is the potential for data to be misread or miscommunicated, which can have significant implications for businesses and the decisions they make”.

Human error

Although AI can virtually remove human error from processes, it can still exist in the code, along with bias and prejudice. Being largely algorithm-based, the technology can be coded to harm certain demographics and discriminate against people.

Worryingly, if security is not 100%, hackers can take advantage of AI's thirst for knowledge. For example, Microsoft's ill-fated chatbot, Tay Tweets, had to be taken down after only 16 hours, after it started to tweet racist and inflammatory content ideas it repeated from other Twitter users.

Responsible use of AI

There is a great deal to be positive about when it comes to AI. Of course, like any new or emerging technology that has the power to disrupt, individuals and organisations must also be mindful of the pitfalls.

But being mindful of the downsides does not mean becoming blinkered to the benefits. Indeed, decision-makers have been warned against doing just this or else risk losing out on the benefits on offer.

"Look at how you are using technology today during critical interactions with customers - business moments - and consider how the value of those moments could be increased. Then apply AI to those points for additional business value," said Whit Andrews, distinguished vice president analyst at Gartner.

"AI projects face unique obstacles due to their scope and popularity, misperceptions about their value, the nature of the data they touch, and cultural concerns. To surmount these hurdles, CIOs should set realistic expectations, identify suitable use cases and create new organisational structures."

Gartner advises that business and IT leaders should endeavour to cut the AI hype away from reality by carefully considering and weighing up the opportunities vs risks. Obsessively focusing on automation, rather than the bigger picture, will only obscure the wider benefits, the analyst firm warns.

Sage advice indeed. Let's leave the final word to someone whose entire remit is to focus on what the future holds - whether it's good, bad, or inherently ugly.

"Everything we love about civilisation is a product of intelligence," said Max Tegmark, president of the Future of Life Institute.

"Amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilisation flourish like never before as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial."

Organisations can also check if their use of AI systems breaches data protection laws using a risk assessment toolkit launched by The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The AI and Data Protection Risk Assessment Toolkit, available in beta, draws upon the regulator's previously published guidance on AI, as well as other publications provided by the Alan Turing Institute. It contains risk statements that organisations can use while processing personal data to understand the implications this can have for the rights of individuals. Based on an auditing framework developed by the ICO’s internal assurance and investigation teams, the toolkit also provides suggestions for best practices that companies can put in place to manage and mitigate risks. 

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