Responsible AI – not sentience – is crucial for today’s business transformation

With AI playing such an important role in digital transformation, ensuring it is used in smart and safe ways is critical

Digital and data-led advancement is at the heart of today’s business transformation, and AI technology, increasingly helping organisations deliver innovative services, is the key to this evolution. So, when Google made headlines recently after an engineer claimed an AI chatbot had become sentient, shockwaves rippled through the global business community.

Whether sentient AI truly exists or not is a distraction. What this hyped news story highlights is the increasing need for responsible guardrails around artificial intelligence to ensure the technology successfully drives business transformation. If there are any questions looming over trust in the use of AI, then corporations will find it difficult to offer the next level of digital-first services and get customer buy-in.

“The debate over a self-conscious AI shows there are still many anxieties about the use of artificial intelligence. If we want AI to synthesise large amounts of data, identify patterns, make decisions and continuously improve, then it has to be ethical, accountable and fully understood by all,” says Caroline O’Brien, chief data officer and head of product at Afiniti, which provides AI that pairs customers and contact centre agents based on how well they are likely to interact.

“Every business now needs a responsible AI practice. Good governance is vital, not only for an organisation, but for its vendors, partners and suppliers. Anyone who is using AI needs to have best practices embedded into their enterprise as it transforms. This is the only way to promote trust in the use of artificial intelligence in business.”

As more companies become digital-first, the challenge is likely to grow. Industry-wide funding for AI is expected to increase in 2022. A third of technology and service provider organisations with plans for AI aim to invest US1m or more into this technology in the next two years, according to Gartner, a business technology research and consulting firm. Such funding is increasing at a moderate to fast pace, as organisations create new products and services, expand their customer base and generate new revenue streams.

“We are increasingly seeing AI used in call centres to connect callers with agents. It is also being used to provide prompts to agents that help them have better conversations with customers. More intelligent chatbots are coming to the fore as well. We will see many more business processes and human decision-making complemented with intelligent machine-based services,” says the CDO of Afiniti, whose technology serves several of the largest Fortune 100 companies across industries, including telecoms, healthcare, and insurance.

“As AI’s use grows organically, it is harder for organisations to get a handle on the extent to which artificial intelligence is influencing business decision-making. Managing risk and promoting accountability is therefore becoming more important, especially as AI is increasingly used not just for frontline customer engagement, but throughout the customer journey. Having a clear understanding of how AI is being leveraged and what the impacts are in their own businesses is a huge priority for our clients right now.”

With more regulation on the horizon, the need to act now is crucial. The EU is proposing legislation to address AI systems specifically that will include a universal obligation to inform customers that they are dealing with an AI. In the UK, policies in this field are under development with the Artificial Intelligence Act, while a patchwork of federal and state-level proposals are being embedded in the U.S.

The core aim is to foster trust in AI and avoid a consumer backlash. Those enterprises, especially ones with operations in multiple jurisdictions, that don’t start building out a robust approach to responsible AI are likely to risk costs to their reputations and bottom line if issues do come to light in this arena.

This increase in regulation comes as artificial intelligence is being further embedded into the enterprise, with many more organizational tasks. For example, customer insights, user experience and process improvement are three ways AI will increasingly benefit customer service organisations in the near future, according to research from Gartner.

“We measure how our AI affects customers and employees, enabling us to understand both the business value that AI creates and its impact on people. Using AI responsibly should include testing for potential bias and correcting it where it is found,” says O’Brien from Afiniti, which has more than 400 patents and whose AI has, to date, been involved in more than 1 billion conversations between customers and call centre agents.

“From a responsible AI perspective, it’s important to make sure that we have these protections in place. Context also matters. AI is being used in many different parts of the customer journey, so knowing where it is being used, when to use it, when not to use it, and where it is going to have the most impact in a positive way is extremely important.”

Many businesses, especially large enterprises, have also implemented AI across multiple business units from marketing and sales, to logistics and business development. Having a cohesive picture on the use of AI and how it can be leveraged responsibly across the whole organisation is challenging. Yet companies will need to have a ‘single pane of glass’ view of their AI if they are to comply with new regulations.

“From conversational bots to intelligent recommendations for customer service agents, the list of how AI can be used grows longer by the day. We increasingly need to account for all these use cases, how they influence decisions and the impact they have, or the industry will start to see rising distrust from consumers,” says O’Brien.

“Having a holistic, responsible AI practice in place addresses this issue of trust. As businesses transform, we need observability, accountability and explainability for all AI uses, all of which drive customer trust. This is what Google’s sentient AI story is really highlighting.”

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Originally published in The Times Business Transformation Special Report on June 30, 2022.

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