CIO UK and Computerworld UK's 2019 research report Making Artificial Intelligence a Business Reality reveals how the hype around AI is balanced by the more measured, pragmatic view of CIOs and IT executives. [There are 1,000 copies of the research available in an exclusive print run; registered CIO UK users can also download the full report here.] Indeed, at the launch of this project a member of our research steering group quipped that it sometimes feels like CIOs are the only adults in the room when senior colleagues are discussing AI.
While our study provides some clarity in benchmarking what organisations believe AI really represents and sheds light on how much progress they are making, it also reveals a series of contradictions and vacuums.
CIOs believe in the transformational opportunities provided by AI, but they have a number of concerns related to skills, cybersecurity and vendor hype. Organisations are most likely to want to invest in off-the-shelf AI technologies, but they are largely sceptical about vendors and the lack of transparency in AI 'solutions'. CIOs are looking to partner with technology providers rather than build their own capabilities, but are worried about vendor lock-in.
Respondents to the survey clearly thought that AI's true value will come from augmenting human roles rather than replacing jobs with automation, and also expected new roles to be created. It is here that one of the biggest disconnects in the research becomes apparent: while the 200 survey respondents identified CIOs, CEOs and CTOs as the key stakeholders within an AI project, HR was cited as both the least important stakeholder and the department least likely to be consulted on AI strategy. As such CIOs simultaneously believe in the power of AI to transform their organisations and employees' roles, yet scarcely even consider speaking to their HR colleagues about the staffing implications of these initiatives.
One of the biggest concerns among our respondents related to the ethical and legal implications of AI initiatives. While CIO survey respondents (and our research steering group) were dubious about how much understanding there is of AI at board level, these same respondents said that the board – as well as internal or independent ethics committees – should be responsible for ensuring the ethics and legality of AI projects at their organisations. Respondents were unanimous in saying that ethical concerns should not be left in the hands of either the government or technology vendors.
CIOs who believe the hype around AI will eventually be realised should think hard about some of these disconnects. Their conclusion could well be that they need to educate their board and organisations about AI, partner with HR colleagues if they truly expect the incoming wave of technologies to augment human roles, consider setting up an ethics board or oversight committee to lead on legal and ethical issues, and develop an ecosystem of partners to work on AI capabilities.
The Making Artificial Intelligence a Business Reality steering group reached consensus on the business case for AI, which was seen as no different to any other CIO issue: start with the desired business outcomes and work backwards to see if there are technological solutions.
Reed Online CTO Chris Bradbury warned "don't try to build an AI strategy", while technology consultant and former Conde Nast Technology Director Nadine Thomson said: "It's important to ask yourself what is the business outcome you are looking to achieve, and then determine if AI fits." Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Chief Digital and Information Officer Karl Hoods added: "In many ways, I don't see the use of AI as being distinct from any other technology."
Experian Director of Technology Aline Hayes urged CIOs to get out and talk to academics, suppliers and peers in their sector, while Bradbury was optimistic that CIOs could have their ducks lined up for situations when AI turns out not be the right technology answer for a business problem. "Think carefully about what problems you're trying to solve, then choose the technology," he advised. "If that technology is something under the AI umbrella, then good luck; you're in for a heck of a ride."