Why private businesses are ideally placed to lead the way on making AI responsible

Maria Axente Responsible AI and AI for Good Lead, PwC United Kingdom Apr 26, 2023

These days it’s almost impossible to avoid the global hype around generative AI. With the advent of new technology, these new generative AI offerings will put decision-making into the hands of consumers and businesses, bringing transformational impacts for both.

But like any hype cycle, this one isn’t quite what it seems. In the face of turbulent economic conditions and intensifying cost pressures, many businesses – especially small and private businesses – might see the ready availability of generative AI as a fast-track route. However, to deliver the hoped-for benefits, AI needs to be not just powerful but responsible.

Keeping humans at the centre of responsible AI

To explain why I’m sounding this note of caution, let me start by going back to 2018. Around that time, many research reports were published – including by PwC UK – estimating the effect that widespread use of AI might have on people’s jobs, and the types of skills that could be needed in the future workforce. They agreed that some existing roles would be replaced and other new ones created, with wide variations in the impacts across different industries and types of jobs.

Fast-forward to today, and that very scenario is playing out. The jobs being delegated to machines tend to include anything related to data analysis, finding patterns in large volumes of information, and making predictions; all areas where machines have an edge over people. But many other roles are remaining the sole preserve of human workers: notably those requiring interpersonal skills, creative thinking, and the ability to solve problems by drawing together learnings from very different contexts.

However, while AI’s impact on different roles varies, something that doesn’t change is the need to have humans at the centre and – ultimately – in control. As the chairwoman of the German Ethics Council commented recently: "The use of AI should enhance human development, not diminish it." The reality is that AI is a tool that can augment human ingenuity and creativity, but cannot and should not replace it.

It’s against this complex and nuanced background that we’re seeing the current upsurge of interest in AI. This isn’t necessarily a technological revolution: the underlying tech that’s enabling today’s generative AI products has been around for many years. Rather it’s a social revolution, as tools that were once in the hands of just a small community of technologists are made accessible to billions of people.

Managing the AI revolution

For any business – large or small, public or private – the effect is to open up an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with these tools, and see first-hand the potential benefits they can bring. Asking (and answering) questions like, how can we bring this type of technology into existing business processes? To what degree could it change our growth trajectory? And what would be the implications for customers, employees and the business as a whole?

So there’s massive scope for innovation using AI, for example faster diagnostics and drug discoveries in healthcare, affordable and personalised education and target intervention on CO2 emissions. But this revolution also has a dark side. If the experiments with process transformation using AI are targeted solely at improving productivity, and fail to factor in the critical importance of keeping humans at the centre, then the outcomes will be inherently unsustainable. For example, using generative AI in a customer service context may solve an initial customer query but the lack of any human touch may ultimately result in a loss of customer loyalty and trust. Which means that when companies are evaluating the potential of AI, they also need to ask a slightly different question: how can we realise the value AI offers while staying true to our deeply-held core values as a business?

How private businesses can lead the way

When it comes to answering this question positively, I believe that private businesses have an edge over larger and listed corporations. Private business leaders – as owners – are often much more connected with their people and customers than their counterparts in a corporation, and their personal values are more deeply embedded into every business decision and action. Conversely, the complexity, scale and additional bureaucracy inherent in a corporation may make it harder for these values to shine through.

This is why I think small and private businesses will be the prime movers behind society’s progression towards responsible AI. My colleague Blair Sheppard, Global Leader Strategy & Leadership for the PwC Network, wrote that private businesses are the future of sustainable entrepreneurship. In my view, they’re set to play the same role with AI, leading by example to show that it is possible to harness the full power of these new technologies while staying true to people. The effect will be to blend business value with ethical values – creating a brighter future for all.

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Dr. Peter Bartels

Dr. Peter Bartels

Global Entrepreneurial and Private Business Leader, PwC Germany