Rise of the Machines: Making AI Work For Your Business

When generative artificial intelligence (AI) exploded onto the global scene in 2023, reactions were decidedly mixed. Some people jumped at the chance to find out what their dog would look like as an astronaut, while others warned of a dystopian future where robots would cheerfully replace artists, writers, and eventually humankind altogether.

Still another group began to explore the productivity uses for AI, employing Open AI’s free-to-use ChatGPT to write their work emails (much to the alarm of upper management). Whether you love it or remain leery of it, experts agree that AI is set to make a profound impact on the way we work.

“It’s going to be absolutely monumental,” says Rob Morris, founder of RBA partner RGM Consulting. “People compare this to the invention of the steam engine, but I think it’s much bigger than that.”

Rob is a certified Scaling Up consultant, and after attending their two-week conference in the United States in late 2023, he came back energised by the discussions on AI.

“There’s a new category of occupation called ‘prompt engineer,’ which is exploding in the States,” he says. “That’s basically people who know how to prompt it. There are all sorts of places online where you can buy prompts or join communities and see how other people are prompting it; that’s all exploding at the moment.”

You might be surprised to know that AI has been in our midst for years – think predictive text or the somewhat helpful chatbots that pop up on the bank or grocery store’s website. The recent leap forward is not in the introduction of AI itself, says NewZealand.AI’s Justin Flitter, but in the leap to generative AI.

Justin founded NewZealand.AI in 2017 to help business leaders see the potential with AI, to learn about its capabilities and the tech, and to start thinking about how their business might use it. As such, he’s an expert at distilling the complex technology into simpler terms. 

“Pre-Covid, most chatbots would have operated on an ‘if this/then that’ rule basis,” Justin says. “It was really prescriptive and unintelligent. You would have had a spreadsheet and rules to say, ‘If this word is mentioned, or this question is asked, give this link and this is the copy.’”

Generative AI like ChatGPT, says Justin, is built on a “live language model,” and it operates beyond the borders of hard-and-fast rules. “With unstructured content, we can literally create a folder or a library of links to webpages, PDF documents, Word documents, diagrams, all of this unstructured content, and the live language model will read all of that content and interpret it.” When it comes to ChatGPT, he adds, that library of content is all the public information on the Internet. “So when someone asks it a question, the AI will look to that library of information to extrapolate an answer.”

From there, the AI uses natural language to spit out the information it thinks we want… with varying results.

“It’s pattern recognition,” says Justin. “It’s a prediction engine. Effectively, ChatGPT is trying to predict the next word in the sentence in a convincing way that makes us confident it’s the right answer. Sometimes, just like humans, it goes a bit screwy and says something a little bit weird, and that’s because it’s trying to predict the next word in the sentence or predict the next idea and sometimes it gets it wrong.”

Like many a keen newcomer, AI isn’t ready to give up once it makes a mistake. Instead, it “learns,” taking its cues from how favourably – or badly – we react to what it tells us.

“It’s getting the feedback loop from our own interactions with it,” says Justin, along with the help of paid testers worldwide who fine-tune the algorithm manually. “Do we say, ‘No, that’s rubbish’ or ‘Okay, that’s great’ and continue the conversation? If the conversation just stops, for one reason or another, it might be that the answer wasn’t as good as it could have been.”

So what’s the best way to get started using AI within your business? “It will help you write, generate ideas, and create new things,” says Justin. “No one should be starting a task from scratch. That’s principle number one with generative AI.”

Rob says that the key to understanding how to use the technology is in viewing it as a complement to your team – or even an honourary team member.

“It’s nice to think of it as amplified intelligence, rather than artificial intelligence,” he says. “Treat AI like it’s a team member with infinite access to data but little wisdom – a very knowledgeable but naïve team member – and train them up like that. For example, ‘They got that right, so I can trust them on that a little bit more.’”

As a starting point, he suggests experimenting with AI for consumer or market research, or to help with social media. “Generating social media content is very easy with ChatGPT,” he says. “Give it a bit of context; tell it who you are. Go in and tell it, ‘This is my business. Give me 10 suggestions for social media posts I can run next month.’ Some of them will be terrible, but for others you can say, ‘Expand on numbers one, four and seven; make them punchier,’ or ‘Make them funnier.’”

Like Justin, Rob cautions that the information you get from AI can be wrong, although quite convincing. Also, importantly, whatever you say to chatbots like ChatGPT gets swirled into a public pot of information. “The best mindset is to assume that what you type in there, other people can read. So don’t type in anything confidential.”

Paul O’Neal, Head of Legal and General Counsel at RBA Partner the EMA, agrees. He’s supportive of businesses trying AI and says it’s a “massive opportunity done right,” but he cautions that the technology is a tool and not a replacement for products, services, or human beings.

“For most businesses, it probably should be used to supplement decisions that have already been made, or work that has already been done, to make things more efficient and effective,” he says. “It’s not a substitute for good human judgement or for the skill and the experience built up by your staff.”

Paul’s says that there’s a lot to consider when it comes to using AI in your business. First is where to apply it – and where not to.

“Say you’re a company and you’re looking at redundancy or a restructure – my suggestion would not be to apply AI to that,” he says. “You might get it to assist you in preparing some documents, but in terms of making decisions about people’s future employment, you should still be getting good legal advice around that.”

Recruitment, he adds, is another mine field. “There’s the danger of bias, discrimination, and unfairness if you’re using AI completely to do your recruitment.”

To protect sensitive business information and your staff’s privacy, restrictions and guidelines on the use of AI are essential. “If you’re putting people’s private information in there, you should be wary about that, you should certainly have their consent, and you should think about what you’re feeding into the AI machine in order to get your responses back.”

There are intellectual property and copyright considerations, too, when looking to use something created by AI. And in terms of liability, any business decision you make or action you take is still the responsibility of the humans at the helm, regardless of whether or not AI had a hand in making the call.

“The reality is, the law doesn’t accept as an excuse, ‘The machines did it,’ or ‘AI told me to do it.’ You still have obligations when you use information, either when you’re bringing it in or putting it out, to think about things like privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. AI can help you make decisions more efficiently and effectively, but ultimately, if you get them wrong, it’s still you taking responsibility for them.”

When it comes to laws that specifically govern the use of AI, there currently aren’t any on the books in New Zealand, but Paul says the use of AI is essentially covered by existing laws on privacy, copyright, the use of information, and a company’s legal obligations.

“People might think AI is so new it’s the Wild West, and I suppose there’s some truth to that in what people understand of its capabilities and its limits, but there are laws and regulations there that will still generally cover what you might do with AI.”

With guardrails in place and a sense of possibility in hand, all three experts say that the future of AI is bright, and the time is now.

“The companies that start doing this early will have the most impact and the most benefit,” says Justin.

He predicts that this year will see businesses set up individual employees and teams with their own “digital coach” they can question and converse with to help them achieve more during their workday. “It’s not about taking away jobs; it’s about AI helping people accelerate in their role. The better you are at doing your job, the better the AI will be at helping you be better at your job.”

AI has the potential to automate hair-pulling processes and free up people’s time for tasks they truly enjoy, something Justin predicts will lead to higher employee satisfaction and ultimately allow businesses to move faster.

The first step, of course, is to give it a go. “Get in and explore,” he says. “Play, be curious, experiment.”

Paul agrees, adding that it’s key to communicate with your staff and acknowledge any skittishness about AI. “When the internet came along, it didn’t replace people’s jobs; it made people’s jobs different, it probably made them easier, and it probably created some new jobs. I’d expect AI to do the same thing. So as an employer, think about how AI can create efficiencies for you, but also be alive to the fact that AI can be unsettling to some people. Communicate with your staff if you’re introducing AI into your business about how it’s going to improve the workplace and make it a more effective business.”

And if the somewhat foreboding promise of AI feels intimidating, not to worry, says Rob. “Every business owner or leader of a small-to-mid-sized enterprise thinks they’re behind the curve, but it’s so new that very few people worldwide are good at this. If you’re thinking about it and you’re playing around with it, you’re kind of ahead of the game.”

Special thanks to Rob Morris (https://www.rgmconsulting.co.nz), Paul O’Neal (https://www.ema.co.nz) and Justin Flitter (https://newzealand.ai/) for contributing to this article.

Roundabout Magazine

This article was published in Roundabout Magazine Issue 204 (February 2024).

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