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AI ripe to power human progress

04:07pm November 15 2017

Terminator robots, seen in Barcelona, Spain in 2009, have become icons of the science fiction film genre. (Getty Images)

Few adults who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s could forget the augmented reality headsets the McFly kids in Back to the Future used to answer calls and run their smart homes.

Or self-driving cars in Total Recall and Arnold Schwarzenegger bearing down on targets in The Terminator, playing on fears that robots could be programmed to kill and destroy.

Fast forward a few decades and artificial intelligence is clearly NOT science fiction any more, and creating fresh fears for things like jobs as billions of dollars is invested in this space.

Elon Musk has even labelled AI “the biggest existential threat to mankind”. Others see it creating a utopia. It’s not uncommon for technology to inspire different views – JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has described the cryptocurrency bitcoin as a “fraud” that will “end badly".

While time, as always, will tell which technology and innovations truly change our lives, I believe AI will power the next wave of economic progress. In fact, I describe it as an “inevitable truth”, if you like, that will define how we work, collaborate and shape our future.

Every profession will feel these pressures, and potentially quickly as the pace of change accelerates.

It was two decades ago in 1997 that IBM’s Deep Blue – which now sits in a museum -- beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov in a six game series. But today, Alpha Go Zero -- a computer program developed by Google DeepMind – now uses reinforcement learning to teach itself, thus getting better and better.

These technological advancements may all sound a bit confronting. But I don’t think the digital revolution today is a cold, dystopian future of robots controlling the world. It’s an age of human empowerment and collaboration. And to better understand the role of humans and machines, we should play to their strengths.

Machines have calculations. We have understanding.
Machines have instructions. We have purpose.
Machines have objectivity. We have passion.


Jayne Opperman, (General Manager, Business Integration, Group Technology), speaks about the impact of AI at a recent conference in Sydney.


We should not worry about what our machines can do today. Instead, we should worry about what they still cannot do today, because we will need the help of new, intelligent machines to turn our grandest dreams into reality.

This is already occurring in the health industry where researchers made an “AI classifier” to look at slides to determine cancer. The classifier had a success rate of 92.5%, but not as good as the Pathologist who got it right most of the time at 96.6%. However, when both classifier and human analysis were combined, an accuracy of 99.5 percent was achieved which is “superhuman performance”. That human-digital partnership eliminated 85 per cent of the errors that the human pathologist would have made working alone, catching a lot of cancer that would have otherwise gone untreated.

So the real question is how do we exercise our power and demonstrate responsibility in shaping AI the way we want it to be, and for the greater good?

According to an IDC report, spending on cognitive and AI systems will exceed $12 billion this year alone. Last month, Alibaba reported that it is investing $15bn in R&D labs and hiring a hundred scientists across the US, China and Israel to build its clout in AI at the same time as China is aiming to be the economic world leader in the space by 2030.

These dollars and ambitions are resulting in massive advancements. For example, Google announced last year that they had mapped every single location in France in just two hours by feeding street view images into a deep learning algorithm to recognise and read street numbers.

Closer to home, at Westpac we’re investigating a number of use cases for AI to improve staff experience. We are analysing Office 365 data to get insights about how the physical location and services influence employee productivity to help provide a measure of how effective our various agile work spaces are. And we’re researching AI technology that can gauge the mood of staff through their facial expressions. While the technology is an interesting experiment for us, we have no plans to roll it out.

AI is also providing opportunities to financial services groups in terms of better insights, a more intuitive customer experience and new ways of doing things, such as robo-advice. In real estate, which is obviously big business in Australia, AI could soon massively reduce the time it takes people to find the right home by offering a “shortlist” of homes tailored to its customer’s situation and preferences.

Westpac is partnering with a number of data fintechs including Data Republic together with Hyper Anna – an AI powered data analyst, to trial a number of ways to deliver unique experiences for our customers.

Partnering with fintechs to better harness AI opportunities will increasingly become a key differentiator. The best AI takes customers from self-service or “do-it-yourself” to “do-it-for-me”, meaning they don’t have to bother with unessential information and just benefit from the end result. It also moves the world from omni-channel to channel-less. While AI does the routine work, it will allow our people to leverage their creativity, intuition, empathy and choice to drive greater value for themselves and the organisation. Also we will need to address the  ongoing challenges around bias, privacy, trust and regulatory concerns and this may limit the near-term replacement of human beings for routine work by machines.

But there’s no point stopping the AI revolution. Rather, by investing in training and upskilling, a “future ready” workforce where machines and humans collaborate can be created. And it’s time to speed this up and prepare with the long-term in mind and defining policies for better regulation of AI with an improved code of ethics.

Policymakers and organisations should be planning 10-20 years ahead to ensure that the workforce displaced due to AI has a place in the future economy. Education and training needs to showcase the benefits AI can have on human life.

More than 200 years ago, the invention of the loom was feared by factory workers who thought that only the masters of the factories would benefit. Instead, it fuelled the industrial revolution and a seismic shift in economic growth and prosperity for the many.

AI may well do the same and shape the next phase of our progress.

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Jayne was appointed GM Business Integration in October 2015. She is accountable for the delivery and management of technology services for the business divisions and aligning business needs with the technology strategy. Prior to joining Westpac, Jayne was General Manager of Technology at ANZ and previously Retail CIO for Lloyds Banking Group. Earlier in her career Jayne held senior roles at KPMG International, PwC in Hong Kong and the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney.

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