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2020 vision: What role will artificial intelligence play in our future?

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning will be demystified and become an increasingly large part of our everyday lives in 2020.

That’s the consensus opinion of the panel of experts and thought leaders I recently had the pleasure of facilitating at Networx Brisbane’s Strategy & Innovation for 2020 event.

Sarah Bell, the co-founder of property technology startup AIRE, began the panel by explaining that while the mechanics of artificial intelligence have been something of a closely guarded secret until now, that will need to change for the technology to be embraced more widely.

“There are only about 60,000 people qualified in artificial intelligence to a PhD level, globally,” she explained. “That’s not a profession, that’s a cabal. I call it the ‘priesthood’. It’s a secret sect of knowledge holders who like to use lots of $10 words and make everything seem very mysterious and scary.

“But what has worked well for us, and certainly what we’re going to capitalise on next year, is the concept of ‘simplexity’ — taking very sophisticated, high-level, complicated concepts and the nuanced world of artificial intelligence and making it really accessible and easy for people to interpret, and therefore trust. And then building human systems to work collaboratively with this technology.”

Bell used RITA — a ‘digital employee’ developed by AIRE to work alongside real estate agents — as an example of this type of collaboration.

“We created an artificial intelligence to work side-by-side as a peer or a colleague with a human knowledge worker in the real estate industry,” she said. “We’re breaking away from the narrative that either a robot or a human are going to do a job. This technology is not necessarily about replacing people, it’s about augmenting and building on their capacity.”

Paul Woodward, a sales leader at Amazon Web Services, used Amazon Go — a chain of automated convenience stores in the US that enable customers to ‘just walk out’ without paying for their items at a checkout — as an example of how emerging technologies will become increasingly ubiquitous in the near future.

While the Amazon Go stores use advanced computer vision and deep learning techniques to function, the impetus for them was the simple human insight that customers don’t like waiting in line.

“We don’t believe innovation comes from an R&D lab,” Woodward said. “We truly believe that innovation happens close to the customers, and if we sit and understand our customers really well, then we’re going to learn from their behaviours, and we’re going to get better at adapting to their behaviours.

“Customers are always dissatisfied, and they’re always looking for a better experience. Regardless of how much market share you might have today, and how well your products and services are doing, your customers are always looking for something better. That’s what drives the Amazon ethos around innovation — staying close to customers, and always trying to innovate on their behalf.”

Kirsty Robinson, the new head of experience at marketing agency VMLY&R Brisbane, agreed that 2020 will be the year that brands get serious about properly integrating emerging technology into their offerings.

“There’s so much happening in the digital space, and I don’t think we’re really deploying it properly to our customers yet,” she said. “In the digital marketing world, we’re still thinking about quite traditional channels. So what I really want to see is how we can improve and start to bring in… not ‘emerging’, but the emerged new technology that’s come through.

“Specifically, voice technology — how are we going to bring that through? And how are we going to start to use data really powerfully for our customers’ benefit, as well as our targeting benefit, and use all of that to create a genuine connection? That’s what I’d really like us to try and do over the next 12 months.”

Before moving to Brisbane to begin work at VMLY&R, Robinson was the director of experience design, and later the national digital HR and employee experience lead, at Deloitte Australia. She provided one of their projects, Deloitte Assist — a voice-activated bedside assistance system in use at The Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney — as an example of innovation in action.

“The complexity that went into getting those algorithms right is amazing,” Robinson said. “But what I like about it is that it isn’t just about customer experience, it’s about human experience. They thought about every single human involved in the experience they wanted to create... [the bedside assistance system is] desirable for the patient because it’s good for them; it’s made everything so much easier for the employees; and it’s providing some really good data for the hospital so they can prioritise what limited resources they have in the right way.”

Ultimately, Sarah Bell said, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will be embraced when people see them as tools, rather than threats.

“I don’t see artificial intelligence as a disruptor,” she said. “It’s been framed as this thing that’s going to change everything. I see artificial intelligence as the latest evolution of a much bigger story. If we go back to the industrial revolution, I think we can see this ongoing trend of a decrease in human labour and an increase in technological output. It was about using machines to augment and capitalise on human effort. Now that’s had a few evolutions, and we’re looking at ‘Industrial Revolution 4.0’, in the type of productivity lift that’s available to knowledge workers.

“The opportunity that artificial intelligence provides is for a business of any size to get in early and adopt it… Start with a problem that your customers have, or that you have in your organisation. What do you want to solve, and where can artificial intelligence help you solve that problem?

“What part of your job is mundane and repetitive? Are you doing things you don’t need to do, that you could automate? It’s really interesting, because we hear these reports that 40 per cent of Australian jobs are automation-endangered and will be disrupted. But I really feel that there is 40 per cent of everyone’s job that sucks — and that’s the best place to start.”

Networx Brisbane will return in 2020 with more informative and inspirational networking seminar events for people in business, marketing, communication, PR, creative and digital. For more information and to book tickets, visit