AI is a two-speed conversation inside companies – The Australian Financial Review

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CEOs are exploring all sorts of ways to use artificial intelligence. Their workers, however, feel unprepared for changes.

Dec 20, 2023 – 5.58pm

CSL is using artificial intelligence to better select which drug candidates can make it through an expensive, decade-long development process and emerge as a commercial product.

Gold miner Newmont is using AI to monitor air and water quality and the condition of wildlife.

AI is front of mind for CEOs, but nearly half of workers feel unprepared.  David Rowe

Online property data and classifieds business REA is building AI models to predict properties likely to hit the market and consumers likely to refinance their mortgages.

Lendlease is using AI on some construction sites to analyse CCTV footage and pick up safety issues.

AGL Energy is using AI to forecast customer usage patterns for electricity and gas, and better manage how it dispatches power into the grid.

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And for the big banks and telcos, AI is about putting the right products in front of the right customers and thwarting things such as scams.

When it comes to AI, you name it, your company is doing it, and it sounds like they are using it for some interesting things. Chief executives across all industries are trying to work out how to get more out of their finite time and resources, and part of that is using automation and machine learning.

Training worries

While the CEOs are happy to talk about its uses – as seen by fulsome responses to Chanticleer’s annual CEO survey – there is a bit more uncertainty on their shop floors.

Polling from CT Group shows Australian workers feel unprepared or untrained for AI in their current roles, particularly in the public sector where regulations for AI are supposed to be under consideration.

The survey found just 10 per cent of workers felt they were “very adequately” trained to use AI in their current roles, while another 45 per cent said they were “somewhat adequately” trained.

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That leaves nearly half of the workforce claiming they are inadequately trained, which jars with CEOs’ collective enthusiasm for AI products and uses, and the technology’s potential to boost productivity.

Alarmingly, it was worse in the public sector where only 5 per cent of respondents reported their training as “very adequate”. It is alarming because the public sector is charged with determining rules and standards for AI, and you would have to think those public service employees’ nerves could weigh on the regulatory environment.

Out in front

So who is right? The bosses or the workers?

As always, it is probably a bit of both. The workers do not realise AI is already part of their everyday life – smart devices, search engines, email platforms – while company directors are fresh off Silicon Valley trips and are on their CEOs’ backs to make the most of the technological change.

At best, this is a big change-management exercise, and the message isn’t getting through to the shop floor. At worst, bosses are saying one thing and a lot of their workers think the opposite.

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It is relevant because AI has exploded on to the corporate scene this year, though it has been a part of our lives for years.

Inside companies, generative AI – and particularly the release of ChatGPT 4 – has elevated AI pilots and projects from a corner of the tech team to the C-suite and boardroom. It is on investors’ radars, and management teams are keen to tell a good story.

CT Group’s poll offers a rare and valuable insight into workers’ (and voters’) attitudes towards AI.

Yes, it is just one poll – CT Group’s survey was conducted online in mid-October and 2510 Australian participants of voting age took part – but it is a reminder that there is plenty to play out before we can bank on AI solving productivity and a bunch of our other hard-to-fix problems. Companies may be using AI and CEOs may be keen to explore other applications, but workers seem to be lagging in their enthusiasm or comfort adopting the technology.

The big banks, in particular, are all over [AI], and say they have been for years.

In terms of politics, CT reckons voters are split on whether the government has the right approach to regulating AI: 45 per cent of respondents thought the government was not doing enough to protect Australians from the risks associated with AI.

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As for our survey, it shows AI is very much front of mind for most ASX 100 company CEOs. The big banks, in particular, are all over it, and say they have been for years.

Commonwealth Bank’s Matt Comyn, for example, says his bank uses 1400 machine learning models for its customer engagement engine, which customers can see through its CommBank app.

National Australia Bank’s Ross McEwan talks about NAB’s “Customer Brain”, which is the same sort of thing – drawing on data sources to learn and adapt to customer preferences and provide a more personalised service.

Not to be outdone, ANZ’s Shayne Elliott tells us he has 3000 engineers using coding platform GitHub to speed up their code-writing process, and Westpac’s Peter King tells us he has 400 machine learning, AI and analytics models serving 12 million customers.

“We have around 1000 engineers using AI to help write code,” King says.

Only a few bosses were brave enough to admit they’re more focused on other things. Viva Energy’s Scott Wyatt said he had to integrate his Coles Express and OTR Group acquisitions before anything else.

For the rest, though, it sounds like they may need to do a better job explaining AI to their staff, if not helping them with training. The bosses are telling us that AI isn’t going away, so it is time to get workers up to speed.

Anthony Macdonald is a Chanticleer columnist. He is a former Street Talk co-editor and has 10 years’ experience as a business journalist and worked at PwC, auditing and advising financial services companies. Connect with Anthony on Twitter. Email Anthony at [email protected]

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