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7 min read

20 April 2018

Kirstie Donnelly, MBE is Group Managing Director at the City & Guilds Group. She recently attended our Leadership in a Technology Driven World programme and has kindly shared her experience of Module Two with us in the blog post below.

I had the fortunate experience of being able to spend a few days with some super clever people from Imperial College Business School last week, experts in their field and from across the globe. The theme was “Global Leadership in an ever increasing world of Technology and the Internet of Everything”…and I had to work my brain work very hard at taking it all in but there were two big themes that hit me (in a good way!) – almost you might say my Eureka moments – around AI and Big Data that I wanted to share with you because of the impact they could have and story they might help us to co-create if we choose to let them.

Clearly AI and Big Data are not new either as terminology or as “functions” progressing in their own right. In fact AI itself goes back as far as 1950 with Alan Turing and his brilliance around the development of the Turing Test and his more esoterica question at the time – “Can a Machine Think…”?

I thought I had understood both AI and Big Data broadly until attending these lectures and I am far from saying a few hours of a lecture has turned me into an “expert” (that would be dangerous!) – But in my mind until these lectures, they still felt quite abstract as topics or events despite instinctively knowing they could have real Impact.

They were largely to me the things that the clever people are thinking about, or at best I might have begun to contemplate the wider impact on the overall sector we are in – Skills Development – and spouted off all the other research that is currently abundant around how it might influence jobs for the future, or the need for re-training etc.  At best this might have got me starting to think about how we might want to address any impact from a broader education/skills development context but I hadn’t actually really thought about the potential impact and opportunity for us as a business until now.

Why not? – quite simply because like a lot of things in life but particularly in a world that is ever more enabled, even led at times by all things technology, until its “real” to us as Humans and we can see/or touch the impact, or it pervades us in some way like the smart phone has, it tends to feel out of our reach or someone else’s to discover or do something with before we follow like a tribe.

But when Professor Nick Jennings, in his lecture on AI, asked us “how many of you are already actively using AI today?” and pretty much all of us bar an exception or two, said “No, not really at all”…..and then asked “how many of us had used Netflix in the last week?” – answer “yes” – “how many of us had used Siri or Alexa?” – answer “yes” – “how many of us had got some shopping recommendations made to us via say our Ocado order?” – answer “yes” – “well” he declared “you are already interacting with AI in your everyday life”, and that’s before we even recognised that the last time we might have called up a Customer Service line we most likely in the first instance were served by a Customer ChatBot – (a highly intelligent AI machine that is so attuned to the service that is being provided it can serve up better than basic customer service without us even knowing it’s a Bot!).

Perhaps for some of you reading this it all still might feel this is too simple a revelation but for me it was a ‘eureka’ moment because it helped me start to place AI not just in my social world, but think about it in the context of our workplace. This was reinforced when we got shown levels of sophistication where AI is working to solve things that it had not even been programmed to do!  It was simply solving things having learnt it itself….a machine doing Deep Learning all on its own! – constantly going through the process of learning over and over again and improving on every level to get to “perfection”.

Then when we started to explore the partnership that could exist between Humans and Machines/AI (hence my own slightly corny re-framed HUMACS title!) – where AI is genuinely complementary to the Human role or task, not just a programmed machine to do certain tasks but a partnership model of human and AI working together to solve problems and create solutions, not a replacement model where AI/ machine takes us over as in ‘horror movies’!

So it got me thinking of where we could start to bring more of that ‘machine’ partnership into how we develop out our own Customer Experience at the City & Guilds Group and bring a new meaning to effectiveness and efficiency through this partnership. One where we can deliver faster and better outputs – (WARNING: not until we have first invested and probably quite considerably first!).

One where the Human eye doesn’t need to spot the quality error – (or worse still not spot it at all!) – or in our development process?; or a product/test? Instead imagine a partnership between Human and AI where we are error free in the development of our assessments or marking in the Skills Credentialing business; or where AI might serve up business process improvement we hadn’t even thought of? Perhaps we can use AI automatically and know in advance when we might issue certain credentials to various individuals all over the world before they even realise they need them and automate the whole process…..these were just a few of the examples that sprung to my mind as the penny dropped for me.

And then all of this got further reinforced when we visited the Data Observatory, which was mind-blowing…..I won’t even begin to try to describe it all, but if I told you I got to see almost real time imagery of planet Mars and what it looks like and all the data that is being collected on what’s is really happening up there (I won’t however be planning a holiday there just yet, as it still looks pretty desolate and desert like to me!)

…or a mass of data that showed exactly how during the Brexit build-up the “Yes” and “No” vote was going at granular levels, months before the actual vote took place – the impact of tweetbots on the voting of “yes’ or “no” voters and so on….But like me you might still be thinking “so what – it’s only data, albeit Big Data, what do you do with it”?

…and that was my second Eureka moment – the realisation that this “Big Data” that we all so often readily use the term for but don’t fully realise what or why we do, is actually about letting the Data tell us the story – let it unfold and spot things we wouldn’t even think about – not tell the Data what you want to know.  So although one academic definition of Big Data = 3Vs: Volume, Velocity and Variety, the real truth and benefit behind Big Data is the new story it can tell us, spotting the small and big truths whether we like what they tell us or not; using it intelligently to help us understand patterns of when something is changing or needs to change, and in doing so starts to therefore help us as humans create the solutions to those problems or opportunities.

For someone who is often told they rely a lot on “instinct” as a form of my own “data” and even if that “instinct” has often worked in the round, my Big Data moment was quite profound, as I realised I can never as a human have instincts that come anywhere as remotely close to what Big Data can deliver in the micro and macro sense and in nano second real time, but I can at least as a Human then use it intelligently and intuitively, using my passion about what we do and how we can do it better, and think about co-creating a story yet to unfold by having a new and respectful working partnership between Human and Machine.

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