Hickin was a panellist at the 2019 Australian Governance Summit discussion ‘Tech and the boardroom: What high-performing boards are doing to harness AI’.
What are some of the big issues regarding AI that may come to the fore this year?
What is occurring more and more is that startups are seeing the opportunity of AI to either disrupt existing markets or create new solutions. For example, we're working with one in Sydney (handled.com.au) which is looking at energy prices and energy usage and aggregating data points to create a new kind of service. They're disrupting the market but actually adding value to both the B and the C side of that B-to-C relationship. This kind of disruption is increasing the pressure on existing organisations to understand and embrace the technology faster.
Public discussion of AI and government involvement in that discussion will be another big issue this year. The public’s awareness of AI is growing and it's starting to generate a lot of questions. I think much of that will be pointed at governments, in terms of what they're doing to provide a level of standardisation or regulation around AI. We’re seeing a number of independent or government-funded bodies popping up to address those issues.
How will the increasing implementation of AI affect boards in the future?
There is a growing expectation for directors to be AI aware, and the importance of it as a driving factor in the way business is going to operate in the future. There is absolutely no question about it, AI is going to become a fundamental piece of either their strategy or the strategies of companies that are going to disrupt them. So, it's critical that directors understand it, embrace it, treat it with care, but don't sweep it away as the thing that is too far in the future for us to worry about or “just another technology”. No, it needs to be something that's understood and driven by the board.
What are some aspects of AI that are important for directors to be across?
Business leaders must seek to truly understand AI’s capabilities. Something that is often misunderstood is the fact that AI is about determining probability – not absolutes. Directors need to get comfortable with that difference in how data is used today. In addition, an essential moving part of AI is data. AI needs data, lots of it, to make determinations. I think a lot of people tend to forget about the data, about some of the mechanics of data at scale and the responsibility of the data that they own.
I think directors also need to ask from a governance perspective, what data do we have, do we have the right controls around that data, do we have too much data for the outcome we are seeking? Are we exposing our customers and ourselves to risk because we have, for instance, people's credit card details and email addresses in plain text data sets? At the same time, it's important to take the mindset of ‘What could we do that is going to help our customers?’, rather than focus only on the threat and the risk.
And finally, of course, directors must have clear awareness of the ethical considerations of AI’s application in their business. Is the board asking, ‘Just because we can do something, should we do it? What are the ethics of doing this? How are we being transparent?’ Every application will have a different ethical context, which needs to be considered.
What advice would you give boards which are implementing AI in their organisational processes?
There’s a big advantage in being curious, not overly cautious, positive rather than negative. Be curious about what it could do for your customers, or how it could help your organisation in some way. If you’re not familiar with the technology, seek out guidance from technical, operational and other aspects of the business; it is incumbent on leaders to take the time to understand and learn.
One of the things that I've seen organisations do is bring in external thinkers and speakers to present to the board. I think it's really interesting that the Commonwealth Bank of Australia recently appointed Professor Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist, to the board, to bring a different viewpoint and start new conversations. As technology evolves, continual learning and looking about to find individuals to bring that fresh perspective to your business is essential.
Once you start to understand the tools and consider what you can do with AI, the doors open up and you begin to see many opportunities to transform processes. One challenge can be to start with something simple, a small problem to solve. I talk to a lot of businesses about finding focus and measurability, tackling a contained problem that is going to have minimal external impact, cause the least disruption to your business, because you don't always know what the outcome is going to be. From this first step, you learn, develop and grow.
To what extent will AI supplement director decision making in the future?
At Microsoft we aspire to empower people and organisations to achieve more. With AI, we augment human decision-making processes to help people work smarter. It doesn't take away the role of the human, just enables them to do things safer, faster, more efficiently and more accurately. A great example of this is the AI work we recently completed with the Northern Territory Fisheries to help them track and count fish populations in the crocodile-infested water of Darwin harbour.
There is also potential to use AI to interpret and ‘understand’ a large body of content and provide an accurate summary to the board. AI already has the capability to bring intelligence to huge amounts of data and enable intelligent searching or to write a brief summary of that information. The opportunity for AI in the boardroom is clear, where there is a lot of data that needs to be consumed quickly and decisions made. AI can assist that process.