Professor Kamal Bechkoum, Head of the School of Computing and Engineering at the University of Gloucestershire considers the growing demand for AI and the central importance of ethics.

If you want a better understanding of how Artificial Intelligence (AI) might influence and potentially transform your business operations, consider the following: According to a January 2022 report from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 2% of all UK businesses, or 62,000 firms, are currently piloting AI, while a further 15% have adopted at least one AI technology - that’s 432,000 companies.

Putting this in financial terms, the UK already has an extensive history of AI spending and is currently ranked third in the world for private venture capital backing of AI companies, with 2019 investment reaching almost £2.5 billion.

All of this and more is reflected in the UK’s ambitious National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy which proposes to further strengthen the country’s place as a global science superpower in the governance and regulation of AI technologies, while also ensuring that UK computing capacity continues to develop and seize upon the latest innovations.

So what exactly is all the fuss about? Why is AI such a hot topic, and where exactly does the concept of ‘ethical AI’ fit into this increasingly expanding and competitive picture?

The promise of AI for business

As well as being one of the world’s fastest-growing tools for organisations large and small, AI is generating numerous opportunities for those businesses willing to embrace the technology.

AI had a global value of $39.9 billion in 2019 and it’s predicted this will grow year-on-year by 42.2% between now and 2027, while the UK Government's 2020 Digital Strategy additionally states that 90 per cent of all jobs will require some form of digital skills within the next two decades.

AI tackles many of the most mundane, repetitive and large-scale challenges organisations face by delivering massive improvements in speed and efficiency, allowing staff to focus on more challenging demands and quality interactions with a firm’s clients and other stakeholders. In other words, AI either automates tasks or helps manage and perform more complex activities.

It does this by making use of uniquely-designed algorithms that allow systems to learn and duplicate patterns to perform tasks such as responding to client enquiries, analysing and deciding insurance claim outcomes, developing new products, improving marketing activities, or even enhancing robotic production lines.

AI also helps remove many of the assumptions that businesses can base key decision-making on by interpreting large amounts of data and extracting patterns and trends that could otherwise be missed.

Companies are utilising AI to help strengthen various assets of their day-to-day operations, ranging from sales and customer service, through to product inventory, business forecasting, accounts, smart personal assistants, security and process automation.

All of this, in combination with the growing trend towards remote and flexible-working, means that businesses are becoming increasingly reliant on new systems and technologies to retain ambitious plans for future growth.

Supply chains without humans

Take, for example, a retail business selling products online. AI-powered ‘Deep learning’ can help operators with issues, including product categorisation, by placing different goods into associated groupings, and then automatically labelling them for sale, adding special offers and flagging other marketing benefits.

Similarly, product distribution and delivery is becoming ever more accurate thanks to AI, often with minimal or no human intervention.

Supply chains have always been data-driven and the success of e-commerce depends on the implementation of flawless logistics that meet modern customer expectations for products and services that can be found, ordered and delivered efficiently and quickly to their doorsteps.

AI-managed warehouses now focus on predicting the smooth flow and replacement of stock as potential congestion-points are identified and eliminated, ensuring channels keep running smoothly 24/7. At the same time machine learning algorithms have the ability to automatically improve tasks without direct programming, using predictive modelling to make operations better.

AI - as ethical as those who use it

While AI offers near limitless potential for business improvement there is also plenty of ongoing debate around the existing ethics of systems, and whether self or formally-imposed regulation is the right path for future developments. This is particularly true in cases where the rapid growth of AI systems, and Big Data Analytics, could result in synthetic intelligences policing themselves.

In short, this means that organisations utilising AI should endeavour to ensure their systems maintain human dignity at all times and don’t act in any way that could harm people. This incorporates many things, such as fairness, avoiding race and gender inequalities and other bias from AI-based hiring, loan or insurance decision-making programs, improper use of historical data analysis, and the improper practice of overt or covert security, tracking or facial-recognition technology.

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AI has become something that people interact with daily, and while it continues to bring new possibilities into different facets of life and work, the high pace of change that accompanies these developments and tremendous innovation also demands careful decision-making with regards its use and potential impacts.

With companies’ clients becoming increasingly aware of political, economic, social and technological issues, it is critical that discussions around ethics are at the centre of any applications which might threaten to infringe upon essential data protection and the implementation of technology.

Some of the clearest risks of AI include violations of privacy, discrimination, the manipulation of political systems, compromises of security, loss of revenue, regulatory backlash and reduced public trust.

Can you trust AI?

Businesses looking to maximise the potential of AI must appreciate these risks and be prepared to take responsibility for their actions. This means understanding AI’s power and taking a leadership position to ensure it is not misused.

A responsible approach is the solution whereby all of the technological benefits on offer can be enjoyed by companies, their clients and stakeholders, while at the same time AI does not replace or take over from human decisions about its use and important outcomes.

Bias is potentially a major problem as AI development is always based on the choices of the researchers involved. This effectively makes it impossible to create a system that's entirely neutral, and why the field of AI ethics is so important.

It is crucial that businesses using AI remain accountable, secure and compliant, while regulation should be similarly impartial and transparent.

One widely-recognised issue is the lack of visibility over how algorithms arrive at the conclusions they do, although outcomes may sometime be the result of a conscious effort to develop AI that produces ‘human-like’ results.

What the future holds for AI

In this era of super-connectivity and AI there is an ever-growing need for new and advanced digital skills. For UK industry to remain at the forefront of these advancements a vital objective has to be to increase the number of learners in AI and data science, including new talent from under-represented groups and diverse backgrounds.

This is one of the key objectives of The Institute of Coding consortium, which includes The University of Gloucestershire and ten other universities, and has been awarded £3.7 million in funding to develop postgraduate courses in AI and data science.

AI and its ethical drivers are clearly accelerating progress towards greater automation, personalised client contact and processes across every section of the supply chain for local, national and global organisations.

For newcomers to this technology its implementation will enable businesses to make intelligent decisions, driving profit and growth that will continue to deliver global economic shockwaves as confidence grows in AI’s unique abilities to identify and capitalise on patterns and opportunities.

It is expected that more enterprises will continue to adopt this data-driven strategy and come to better understand the value of the information they already own in the coming months and years.

Our industries are set to be revolutionised by AI. It is important they prepare appropriately and use this power responsibly.

About the author

Professor Kamal Bechkoum is a world-leading expert in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Head of the School of Computing and Engineering at the University of Gloucestershire.