As top companies build AI into their key strategies there is one particular thing to be really afraid of 

Remember Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about the Nightingale? A bird that sang so beautifully that even the poor fishermen, who had so many other things to do, would stop and listen. Sometimes, when they went at night to spread their nets, they would hear her sing, and say, “Oh, is that not beautiful?” But when they returned to their fishing, they forgot the bird until the next night. Then they would hear it again, and exclaim “Oh, how beautiful is the nightingale’s song!” A bird so lovely that it drove the Chinese emperor mad with desire to own it. In the end only to discover that nature in itself holds the most beautiful of beings that only artificial beings could dream of.

Like it or not, Artificial Intelligence is permeating every aspect of our lives. Like any good technology, it is magical in that you don’t need to know how it works in order to do wonderful things with it. Amongst all of the noise surrounding ethics, risks, and catastrophe, there are plenty of reasons to be scared about the rise of the robots, but I’m not and here’s why.  

AI is here to stay, and it is growing

Ever since I read Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in high school I have followed AI from the sidelines. I grew up with Doctor Who on a black-and-white tv set, and as many others my age I was intrigued by sci-fi and the fascinating, new world I believed it represented. For many years artificial intelligence was something truly fictional. Now it is more facts than fiction.

AI is not as mysterious or futuristic as it may sound. The term AI describes technology that mimics human intelligence and behaviour, often through programming to carry out automated tasks, improving efficiency and precision. Certain technologies are developed further to include machine learning, where software is fed data and can find patterns to build new understanding over time. The science and technology continues to improve, as more and more AI products are released onto the market.

It’s rapidly increasing in commercial use – you are already benefiting from it every day even if you don’t know it. Automation is used for Netflix recommendations that suggest what movies we may enjoy. Machine learning is used by Google Maps to track route efficiency. Earlier today, Maps sent me a new shortcut suggestion, and I was able to shave 2 minutes off of my commute.

Hubspot describes everyday uses of AI 

There are risks

Like any powerful tool, it can be misused if not properly managed or regulated. Major tech leaders have made conflicting statements in the media about whether AI signals the coming of a dystopian future (highly unlikely according to Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft).

Today, some of the real concerns AI has created include the amplification of inequalities through uncorrected biases embedded in an AI’s programming or data privacy issues and how to avoid personal data becoming public. Down the road when AI has higher capability, I wonder about the public acceptance levels for an AI produced decision and impacts on our autonomy.

Business leaders should consider the risks and large institutions are working on strategies to safely manage AI, and there are a growing number of bodies that have been set up to establish good practices. Google is in the process of establishing an AI ethics board, after a failed first attempt, but will hopefully be able to establish a strong team with diverse perspectives. Harvard University has an initiative to train policy makers on AI to guide informed decision making. April 2019, the EU released a series of AI guidelines that will be pilot tested, focusing on keeping AI lawful, ethical, transparent, and trustworthy.

More Opportunities  

As top companies build AI into their key strategies, the biggest AI risk is whether or not your business will be left behind and miss beneficial opportunities. In early 2019 Microsoft published an outlook report for Artificial Intelligence in Europe, which demonstrates the importance of AI for the future of business. 250+ senior business leaders across several sectors were surveyed, and the data showed that 61% of companies are in the planning and development stage for incorporating AI into their business model. AI is changing the market, and to continue to compete all companies must consider having a AI strategy. 

At Sustainia, we look to turn risks to opportunities, and with AI we are investigating how AI trends could be best utilised to support progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. While important risks must be managed, the opportunities that AI opens for society are numerous.

We already are seeing amazing innovation that gives us hope that AI will become an important tool for creating increased social equality, disaster relief, and climate action. One of my favourite AI companies right now on the Global Opportunity Explorer is Energsoft, a startup that is using AI to support developers in improving the efficiency of renewable energy storage. AI can also be applied for conservation, for example Silvia Terra which is using AI to map forest cover to encourage better management and protection of important resources. On the social equality side, Thorn is developing AI to use facial recognition to identify and rescue victims of human trafficking. There are countless other examples like this waiting to be discovered.

Silvia Terra uses AI to track forest cover to support conservation efforts 

Want to know more? 

Sustainia is a global sustainability advisory firm that specialises in impact technology and artificial intelligence. Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Guangzhou, China and Santiago de Chile, we research and develop new insights and market opportunities. Sustainia is a co-founder of the Global Opportunity Explorer, the world’s largest platform for vetted and verified sustainable solutions, and serves as a matchmaker between business solutions and global challenges.

Rasmus Schjødt Pedersen is the CEO & Senior Partner of Sustainia. He holds dual master degrees from University of Copenhagen and Harvard University, and is a past recipient of the Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark Scholarship to Harvard University, “awarded for exceptional academic achievements”.

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