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If organisations want to capture AI’s benefits, they need to get to work

Tue 4 Feb 2020 | Daniel Hulme

When it comes to AI, it’s make or break time for companies seeking to compete with Big Tech

“No company competes today by its access to electricity, and no company will compete by its access to AI.” That’s the prediction of Daniel Hulme, AI expert, lecturer and CEO at AI firm Satalia

For Daniel, today’s organisations are at a critical fork in the road. Successful companies will harness the power of AI and other emerging technologies to create more sustainable, purpose-driven companies. On the other hand, those who fail to use technology to adapt will exacerbate the “misery-inducing organisational design” that pushes skilled staff out the door.

Two peas in an AI pod

Daniel explains that there are “broadly two flavours of AI.” The first is “focused on fully automating tasks that were traditionally only in the realm of human capability.” It is this variety that leads many to worry about AI’s encroachment on traditional job roles and what this spells for those currently paid to perform them. 

But this is an oversimplification of the problem. Arguably, automation serves to highlight where ‘traditional organisations’ operations are dysfunctional.” This is where the second flavour of AI comes into play. Yes, AI can be used for ‘linear’ automation, but more sophisticated AI systems are ‘complex and adaptive’, capable of delivering exponential and contextual automation. This begs the question: why can we not weaponise this capability to remedy existing organisational flaws? 

A large portion of Daniel’s work is dedicated to “completely rethinking company structures” to enable organisations to be more adaptive. “The quicker you adapt to a changing environment,” he notes “the more intelligent you are.” Organisations must not only adapt to the disruptive impact of automation. In an age where tech giants have “seemingly infinite access to cheap capital,” companies need to “attract, retain and motivate talent in new ways.”

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Historically, Silicon Valley outfits and their descendants have turned to workplace perks to attract and retain talent. But nowadays, companies must think beyond superficial bolt-ons like “table tennis, office dogs, beanbags and kombucha-on-tap.” Today’s realities call for a radical rewiring of the company, not short-term cosmetic changes.

A concept that animates Daniel’s reinvention of the company is decentralisation. In order to compete with deep-pocketed tech companies, firms should “decentralise their innovations.” Think open-source, but wide-open source. Companies should allow the global talent pool to access and contribute to innovations “instead of dying from the inside.” “Innovation can be constantly improved by a decentralised community,” says Daniel.

And it’s not just organisations that he reckons would benefit from the hierarchical steamroller. Governments and even the planet would, too. Daniel believes governments are “old news”. Better to encourage a world “where anyone can start an idea.” In this world “everyone has the opportunity to contribute and be paid fairly for that contribution,” whether they’re a marketer, designer, engineer or strategist.

Working progress

How can AI and other emerging technologies enable this world? Several years ago, Daniel’s company, Satalia, developed an open peer-to-peer based salary system that used machine learning to help determine employee salaries. The goal was to improve employee retention by ensuring they were paid what they were worth. 

With the system, employees could make public recommendations for their own salaries and vote for them to be increased, decreased or kept the same. The weight of someone’s vote was determined by the strength of two people’s relationship, which Satalia evaluated by analysing how often employees were interacting on applications like Slack, Google G-suite and email. 

For instance, when one of Satalia’s female data scientists made a recommendation “that was clearly less than what she was worth,” her colleagues addressed it and her salary was increased. Daniel admits it is “by no means a perfect system” but nevertheless “a step in the right direction.”

Fit for purpose

Organisations can’t just rely on the power of technology. They need a “strong and positively impactful purpose” that empowers employees. Daniel notes that today’s tech conferences are less and less about tech, and increasingly about “talent, ethics and purpose.” He expects these topics and conversations to “crystallise around competing operating ideologies,” similar to capitalism and communism in the political sphere.

Compounding the tech problem is pervasive AI ignorance. Marketers keen to hijack AI’s appeal deceptively dub anything that possesses vague automation as AI, even Pizza makers. On the rising number of technologists claiming to be AI or ethics experts, Daniel says “it’s like claiming you’re a surgeon because you know how to knit.” This leads to the present lunacy of companies paying top dollar for data scientists who they think will “solve all of their problems.” 

Moving forward

Despite the hype, AI is not a castle built on sand but a powerful business enabler. It’s up to organisations to use the technology in concert with concepts like decentralisation to stay competitive. That way they will “unlock global talent, and provide a mechanism for frictionless innovation to ensure our basic needs in healthcare, nutrition and education are met.” Only time will tell how well companies adapt. Currently, it’s very much a work in progress.

Experts featured:

Daniel Hulme

CEO, Satalia & EIR, UCL


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