Interview: AI poses ‘no existential threat’

Does artificial intelligence threaten jobs? Euan Cameron of business consultancy PwC thinks not. He spoke to Ian Taylor

Travel and retail will see increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI), but this need not mean wholesale job losses or give rise to wider fears.

That is the view of Euan Cameron, artificial intelligence leader at business consultancy PwC.

AI, or machine learning, is already advancing in what Cameron calls “more-sophisticated sectors where there is a lot of data available – in financial services, big retail and telecoms”.

He said: “There are potential uses across the whole economy – in customer targeting, customer interaction and risk prediction.” In retail, he foresees AI being used increasingly in ‘demand forecasting’ and to drive pricing.

It will also be used to ‘customise’ or tailor product. Cameron explained: “Rather than a consumer look through a brochure online or on paper, AI will drill down to half-a-dozen holidays the data suggests would be most interesting to a client. It could come down to particular pricing in resort or might mean a specific set of menu choices.”

AI can also speed up and vastly expand the process of ‘conjoint analysis’, where customers are asked ‘Do you prefer product A or B?’ enabling businesses to configure offers accordingly. Cameron said: “AI opens a whole new world for this.”

‘Systems can do things you don’t expect’

He acknowledges there are challenges. Cameron said: “One challenge is AI’s science-fiction image. AI systems are ‘learning’ systems. If you teach them wrong, they can do things you would not expect.”

Also, because AI is a learning technology: “It doesn’t necessarily behave tomorrow as it does today.”

But he insisted: “Images of malevolent robots aren’t an accurate picture of the technology now or of what the future holds.”

Cameron added: “There is the question of regulation. You can have the best engine in the world, but if there is no chassis and no controls it’s not much use.

“There is also a general data-privacy question. I suspect the pendulum might swing back [to greater privacy].”

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation due to come into force next May “will draw more attention to this”, he said, although he believes the technology “will ultimately facilitate [personal] ownership of data”.

The issues for business “are more about understanding and education” he said. “Most chief executives think AI is one of the most-transformative issues for their sector. But a majority of CEOs are apprehensive and few are beginning to investigate or invest in anything at scale.”

‘A computer doesn’t know it’s a computer’

But none of the concerns appear to worry Cameron. He said: “I don’t believe there is an existential threat. We’re miles away from [artificial] general intelligence.

“Specific AI or robotics are extremely well developed and highly configured in a narrow range. A computer can beat any human at chess, but it doesn’t know it’s a computer or that it’s playing chess – and it can’t play tennis or the violin.”

More general intelligence “is 100 years down the road”, he said, adding: “The idea of a sentient robot is pretty questionable.”

At the same time, he insisted: “The productivity benefits are enormous. We estimate the GDP gains from AI by 2030 at $15.5 trillion. There is the potential to automate the more mundane work done by humans.

“There will be disruption of employment, but we expect overall employment to be relatively static. We think about machines replacing tasks, not replacing jobs. Roles will change more than be eradicated.

“High-volume repetitive tasks will disappear, but a lot of human roles in hospitality and travel use emotional intelligence and interaction.”

He said: “Technological change is always with us and history suggests humans are very in how they spend their time on economic activity. I’m very positive about the technology.”

Euan Cameron will speak on ‘AI and Emerging Technologies’ at the UK industry’s Travel Convention in the Azores in October.

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