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Andre Walters sat down for a chat with Investec’s Chief Information Officer, Shabhana Thaver, to explore Artificial Intelligence and what it means for our future

An ‘acronym’ is said to be an abbreviation from the initial letters of words and it is pronounced as a word all by itself. ‘NASA’, ‘PRASA’, and many other examples dominate our lives these days, especially with social media having taken over the way we mostly communicate with each other.

But there seems to be one special acronym that is dominating many conversations these days. It is ‘AI’, or Artificial Intelligence. But the word ‘artificial’ also means ‘that which is not real’. So, how real is AI, actually, and what can we expect from it in our lives and that of our children and their children into the future? Or should it rather mean, ‘Automatic Intelligence’, when we look at all the things we can do on our cellphones and laptops? This vitally important topic seems to be growing day by day and we really had to chat to somebody that knows about it. There seem to be many experts in this field. Here is one such a person: we bring you Leadership Magazine’s fascinating conversation with Shabhana Thaver, the Chief Information Officer at Investec.

We are all talking about AI as the key to an enlightened future for humanity, but what about all the vital things that have guaranteed the survival of humanity over the many centuries of our existence, like ‘experience’, ‘instinct’, and a weapon in the hand? Are we moving away from what we have always used to help us survive and dominate our environment as a living species and will AI replace these things in our lives?

There is no doubt that technology and AI are permeating our lives and the way in which we approach things from both a business and a personal perspective. We are likely to continue to see changes across industries, our many social sectors, and everyday life. Having said that, as technology keeps on increasing significantly, there’s a need to focus more on sharpening new human skills. We are facing a period of technology diffusion where new roles and skills are formed—and are required! That’s the only consistency from the industrial age to now. Technology unlocks vast new capacity to sense, connect, automate, amplify, and augment, but it is we humans who are able to bring specialised context and empathy. To survive, we must live by purpose and respond mindfully to our life situations by bringing a consciousness for an enlightened future and, at the same time, use these advanced technologies responsibly.

How can AI help us to survive the great and growing challenges we are now facing, like global warming, water pollution, lack of toilets at schools, joblessness, wars, starvation, human cruelty, and the horrible things we see with our police and criminals?

The critical global challenges are deep, with many systems at play, and solutions will require input from many disciplines, including technology. By harnessing science and technology, coupled with innovation and consciously thinking of purpose in our leadership, we can not only take steps to transform our relationship with nature and reverse rising inequality by providing access and opportunities, but we can also start to build resilience against future crises as well.

You have said, ‘The speed at which we are facing disruption due to the convergence of technologies leaves us with the 21st century question of irrelevance’. Could you elaborate on that theme?

The reality is that, in general, technology is growing at an exponential rate, and information and tech are becoming a commodity. The speed at which we are facing disruption due to the convergence of technologies leaves us with the 21st century question of irrelevance, as Professor Palsule Sudanshu describes it (Sudhanshu Palsule is an award-winning educator, leadership philosopher, CEO advisor, author, and speaker. He is regarded as one of the leading thinkers in the fields of Transformative Leadership and Leading in Complexity. The author of several books, his latest book, ‘Rehumanizing Leadership’, was published in 2020). This rapid pace of technological change is impacting on existing business models and markets, and it also leaves us with the question of human irrelevance.

We’ve moved from ‘physical labour’ being done by machines to ‘cognitive abilities’ being done by machines, and at a pace we cannot comprehend. Something that used to differentiate us before, our cognitive ability, does not differentiate us any longer. We had time to understand these shifts before, but time does not work in our favour now, considering that the rate of change is exponential. We must reconfigure our people to determine what are the future skills that we need to stay relevant—analytical judgement, smart decision delegation by humans versus machines, intellectual curiosity to find deeper relationships and prompt better outcomes, and many other adaptations.

Used with the right intentions, technology will be the driver of economic output and offer significant opportunities. But it also poses risks. The development of powerful tech and AI systems not only threaten existing structures, with many people raising concerns around being replaceable and certain jobs becoming redundant or irrelevant, but there are also concerns around ethics and how malicious actors can be exploited, if not managed. As AI becomes more intuitive, it leaves many of us unsettled. It goes without saying that there’s both an upside and a downside to technology.

You have also spoken about, ‘Driving a need to sharpen new human skills—the ones that amplify human creativity, ingenuity, and judgment’. Could you please also elaborate on that topic?

Even though algorithms are created with positive intent, it learns from data, and this could lead to skewed results. As a result, the human consciousness and input will continue to be critical in not only humanising the engagements and experience to supplement this high-tech space, but to ensure that judgment and critical thinking (with a human touch) is used to provide transparency and understand where, and what, information was used to derive the decision and whether its relevant or not. We will need to question the AI models’ meanings behind the responses or decision making. We will have to understand what the model did not do to determine the desired outcome and use our judgment skills to determine if that makes sense. Navigating the uncharted waters of industries in turmoil requires bringing to life our organisational purpose in order to make the right judgments and bring the sense of context of which machines are incapable. Humans, in contrast, often excel at this kind of thinking and, as such, we need to sharpen these skills, as these elements of human judgment will become more and more indispensable.

You touch on many issues that will make our future more possible, harder, easier or even impossible. Could you elaborate on that as well?

We are in a deepened and networked environment in this information-explosion age. On one side, we question whether there is an existential threat to humanity if AI systems are exploited and malicious actors are not being contained. On the other side, we ask, ‘does this invade my privacy, security and manage my wellbeing better than a human being can?’ Versing opportunities of how we incorporate this tech into our daily lives, are we looking at how our existing methodologies/models need a re-shift; blending it, using technology, for example Education and Industry and using chatGPT? (ChatGPT is an AI chatbot that uses natural language processing to create humanlike conversational dialogue. The language model can respond to questions and compose various written content, including articles, social media posts, essays, code and emails). Are there things we should be learning, unlearning, and relearning as in Alvin Toffler’s words? (Alvin Eugene Toffler [October 4, 1928 to June 27, 2016] was an American writer, futurist, and businessman known for his works discussing modern technologies, including the digital revolution and the communication revolution, with emphasis on their effects on cultures worldwide. He is regarded as one of the world’s outstanding futurists). All of the above are certainly true.

We also get the impression that you are suggesting that “Smart Machines” are not really the full answer. How can we work with AI and become a better society?

We need to approach this from a systems-thinking perspective. In this eco-system, there are the suppliers of the tech, the users, and the regulators.

We each have a role to play in the responsible use of AI. Above the surface is governance and then, below the surface, there’s purpose and culture. Governance works for the best interests of humanity—balancing safety with innovation, while purpose reminds us to do the right thing. AI should not displace what differentiates you. It’s not about self-interest. It’s about value to all stakeholders. And culture drives a set of values that focuses on stronger judgment, ingenuity, and empathy—the re-humanising of leadership—to ensure that we can make the right decisions and filter out what is relevant, versus what is not.

You have also said that ‘counter-factual thinking is a key element’. Can you elaborate on that as well?

Leaders need to be liberated from routine work to focus more on strategic transformation. But, with companies using technology to make determinations about health and medicine, employment, creditworthiness, and even criminal justice (to name just a few), how are we ensuring that decisions are not based on flawed assumptions and encoded with structural biases? Where are the deepened relationships of our humanity and empathy and how are we making the right decisions and filtering out what is relevant and not?

Sure, smart machines can out-think us, but certain elements of human judgment are indispensable and counterfactual thinking and conscious leadership will be critical in addressing the ‘known-unknowns’ when it comes to abuse, misuse, or the unintended consequences of new technology.

Just a last thought from us: Clearly, listening to the views of Thaver on this deeply complex and at times rather frightening topic of AI, makes one grateful that there are people who appear to be on top of things and who can protect us from what does, at times, seems like a deepening, and ever more complex, future.

Andre Walters is a veteran broadcaster.

By Editor