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Artificial intelligence key to NZ's economic future - report

Embracing artificial intelligence is key to New Zealand's economic future, according to new research from Accenture.

The critical success factor for businesses in a post-COVID world will be in their abilities to adopt AI technology, the research says.  However, employee adoption of AI remains one of the biggest barriers to businesses scaling the technology.

Accenture New Zealand technology lead, Paul Hearnden, says the COVID-19 pandemic had brought about new ways for humans to work with intelligent machines. 

“Over the past months, organisations in every sector have scrambled to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, the value of human-machine collaboration has never been clearer," he says.

“AI-powered chatbots are assisting health workers as they screen and triage patients, algorithms are helping healthcare suppliers reconfigure their supply chains, and AI is even helping in the race to find a vaccine.

“Here in New Zealand, Orion Health’s AI technology is being deployed to deliver an Algorithm Hub for government agencies, academic and healthcare organisations, and healthcare professionals.  It’s a world-first, national solution for secure and timely scenario modelling, risk prediction, forecasting and planning throughout New Zealand’s COVID-19 response," he explains.

Hearnden says AI is also helping business leaders solve the challenges of a reduced workforce, compliance with social distancing rules and enabling them to become much more flexible in the process.

“In India, Accenture moved 150,000 people to work from home – in three days. In that time, every single person was contacted, and hardware was sourced and delivered to their homes. In the weeks that followed 150,000 people were checked on personally every day and given troubleshooting advice to improve network performance," he says.

“Without AI, that would have been impossible. Allocating the communication and coordination tasks to bots meant the team was able to deliver the best support and advice to a huge workforce."

However, employee adoption of AI is one of the main barriers to scaling the technology in enterprises, Accenture says.

“In the 80s and 90s New Zealand employers were upskilling their workforce on how to use computer systems," says Hearnden. 

"In the 2020s we can expect to see the same with AI. Employers will need to build up employee familiarity and competency with the technology if they want to be successful in the coming years.”

The Technology Vision global pre-pandemic survey of business leaders found that 79% of respondents believed that collaboration between humans and machines will be critical to innovation in the future. However, only 37% reported having inclusive design or human-centric design principles in place - a number which has likely risen exponentially in the past few months.

“Workers, governments and the public are seeing AI in the best possible light – and businesses have never had a better opportunity to deploy AI tools," says Hearnden.

"But as they do so, they must make sure to design their tools in a human centric way so that workers remain on board.

“Thankfully, many new AI tools are very intuitive for humans to use because of technologies such as natural language processing and computer vision."

Hearnden says Explainable AI, where the decision-making process of machines is laid bare for all to see, will be another important element in ensuring that the good will towards machines won during the pandemic is not lost.

“If organisations can get this next stage of the AI journey right and deploy the tools at scale in a way that enables true human-machine collaboration, then the sky is the limit," he says. 

"Businesses will be able to sweep away the constraints that have traditionally held AI back and open whole new possibilities for their company and workers."