The age of AI has arrived

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Yasvanth Singh and Kurt Kruger explain why it’s time South African CIOs get on board – or get left behind.

Almost overnight, AI has shifted from Deep Blue to being part of the zeitgeist. Yet, due to cost, a lack of skills, and even uncertainty, many South African CIOs aren’t yet leveraging its power. 

Artificial Intelligence could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030, according to PwC.

To understand how we’ll reach those heights, we need to look at how this revolutionary technology started.

In a 1950 paper entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, mathematician Alan Turing posited building machines that could make decisions and solve problems. In this paper, he also introduced the ‘Turing test’, whereby a machine could be deemed ‘intelligent’ or not (today’s CAPTCHAs are a type of Turing test).

Not only did he introduce the mathematical possibility of AI, but he also figured out how to decrypt World War II German ciphers in his code-breaking group, Ultra. In addition, he turned a computer into a musical instrument (one could say the polymath was also responsible for the genesis of doef-doef).

The chaos of innovation

SnapScan CPTO Kurt Kruger admits that he’s guilty of not extensively exploring how he can leverage AI for his organisation’s product lines. While AI hasn't significantly impacted his role yet, he foresees that he’ll likely need to adopt some aspects of the technology into his workflow.

“It's tricky because AI isn't a panacea for the problems that CIOs and CTOs generally try to solve,” explains Kurt. “Especially with Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGTP. Since they are stochastic, they're great at generating plausible bodies of text based on what already exists, but they're not great at predicting the future.”

However, Kurt believes that CIOs and CTOs who are not using AI to optimise their time are losing out, big time. “You're leaving money on the table; LLMs are great at summarising and explaining things, and having a companion that can ingest and give technical and behavioural breakdowns of new products and technologies saves hours of daily effort.

SnapScan plans to introduce multiple forms of AI into their product lines in the coming years, but Kurt admits it’s difficult to keep pace with the new literature, and the fact that his industry – fintech – keeps changing at an increasing pace.

Emotional intelligence

Yasvanth Singh, former group CIO at Lesaka Tech, agrees that tech leaders need someone to lean on, but South African CIOs and CTOs face skills shortage challenges to boot, especially in small- and medium-sized enterprises.

“If you’re implementing AI in your organisation, you'll probably have to insource or outsource some of these skills. It also becomes a cost issue because emerging tech, if it’s not open source, is still relatively expensive, especially in the current economic climate,” says Yasvanth. “Many small- and medium-sized enterprises just don't have the skill set, or the money, to invest in this technology – so we need to do it organically.”

By ‘organically’ Yasvanth means that tech leaders should slowly introduce technology like AI into their organisations, and there needs to be a sharing of skills. “We need more operational experts and specialist consultants who we can lean on and who can advise us,” adds Yasvanth. “That's what we're lacking. With emerging technology, there are few local vendors to lean on, but I believe this will change as the industry changes to adopt this technology because there will be a greater demand.”

Pre-ChatGTP, he conducted research for his MBA into emerging technologies like AI, Robotic Process Automation, and machine learning. He found that human-computer hybridity (HCH) – when AI and humans augment, and not replace, one another – is key to an organisation’s competitiveness. This ‘hybrid intelligence’ is about finding the balance between human strengths, like creative thinking, and computational power, like quickly sifting through swathes of data. For Yasvanth, AI should enhance our capabilities, not usurp them.

As part of his MBA, Yasvanth devised a framework for organisations to use when creating an elastic, scalable, and agile organisation. “AI was one pillar of this framework, with leadership at the centre to enable the human workforce, hybridity, and elasticity,” he explains. According to Yasvanth, with emerging technology like AI, an organisation needs the right skills to implement the tech, and its leadership also needs to have emotional intelligence.

Yasvanth explains that an organisation’s leadership must understand that any big changes will impact lives and livelihoods. There’s the temptation to implement a technology like AI at speed – because every day you wait, you fall behind – but for Yasvanth, it should be slowly and responsibly implemented, especially in a South African context.

“You need to be cognisant that there may be psychological trauma on some people,” he adds. “Some employees will become redundant, especially in South Africa, as we have a large, unskilled workforce. Some people will be able to upskill and others won’t. Without having empathy and understanding the potential, underlying psychological impact on your employees, it's hard to implement AI in an organisation successfully.”

This article was originally published in the the first edition of the 2023 CIO Magazine, read the full article, which is now available for download here.

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