Artificial intelligence’s economic impact ambiguous

July 28th, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT, Articles: PositionIT


On 27 July 2017 four prominent panellists in a Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Forum tackled the tough topic of artificial intelligence’s impact on economic growth. The panellist were Accenture’s director and innovation lead, Rory Moore, World Wide Worx managing director Arthur Goldstuck, Openserve chief strategy officer Pushkar Gokhale, and Sappi group chief information officer Bradley Coward.

Like many other digital technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) has largely been made possible and viable by advancements in computational power in recent years, Coward explained. Goldstuck also distinguished between consumer-type AI on consumer devices, and industrial-type AI that run on large corporate machines and networks.

Panellists Rory Moore, Bradley Coward, Arthur Goldstuck and Pushkar Gokhale.

Panellists Rory Moore, Bradley Coward, Arthur Goldstuck and Pushkar Gokhale.

This broad scope of AI and the many sectors it has the potential to transform seemed to make an articulate economic impact evaluation elusive, and minutes in, the conversation turned to address the popular AI question of the anticipated extent of disruption and joblessness resulting from AI.

Gokhale suggested a shifting mindset from “man versus machine” to “man with machine” when thinking about AI. He added that AI holds the greatest potential for developing countries with leapfrog ambitions when it comes to learning from developed nations. Coward also spoke of the speed of AI roll-out, describing it as a journey rather than an overnight event.

Indicators of economic impact could include the rate of AI adoption, the degree of public preparedness, as well as productivity gains achieved – and, perhaps most importantly, how AI can be used to create consumption. Gokhale said that the underlying threat to growth in the AI age is data processing and access to data.

Goldstuck gave the example of how AI has the potential to speed up product design cycles, in one case from 18-month to only two hours. Other panellist provided examples of their own, such as how digitisation has upended Sappi’s paper business led to it becoming a packaging business, as Coward explained.

The prospect of job-less growth and other ethical concerns also cropped up, but their complexity and panel time constraints left them largely unresolved. One thing all the panellists agreed on was the importance of education if South Africa is to stay current with AI developments, in the case that AI does indeed mean upskilling rather than job losses for most workers.

Update: Accenture in partnership with GIBS have published a white paper on AI, titled “Artificial Intelligence – Is South Africa ready”, which expands on the discussion in the GIBS Forum.